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The “How To” for the Four Leadership Skills that Matter Most

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

Books and articles on leadership abound and date back to ancient times. There are many models and theories, yet leadership boils down to what successful leaders do. What behaviors get people to follow them? What behaviors should companies help people develop, encourage, support?

To sort through what is most important in leadership, McKinsey & Company researchers surveyed 81 diverse organizations around the world to assess predominance of the 20 distinct leadership traits in the top quartile organizations. This research found that high-quality leadership teams typically displayed 4 traits. These four explained 89% of the variance between strong and weak organizations.

Bottom line: the following four leadership traits distinguish strong leaders from others. Here they are, along with ideas on how to hone these traits for success:

supporting others

Support Others

Taking a genuine interest in others leads to trust. A supportive leader is often known for helping others solve problems and increase competence.

How to Be Supportive

Take the time to observe what challenges others have. Seek to understand how you can assist in removing barriers or opening doors. Let them know you have noticed what and how they are doing. Provide encouragement: a note, a cup of coffee, an idea. Help people develop new perspectives, new skills.

Seek Different Perspectives

Confident leaders demonstrate intellectual curiosity: they understand the value of ideas. They have the courage to admit they simply cannot know everything necessary for success. Therefore, they actively seek opinions and ideas that differ from their own. They are sincerely interested in how others view the world and want to understand how they think, evaluate options and make decisions. They understand that different perspectives, or frames, enable them to make more robust decisions that lead to greater business and personal success.

How to Seek Different Perspectives

Make your interest in understanding others’ opinions and ideas known. Ask second and third level questions to gain a deeper understanding of different frames. Be open about what you don’t know and want to learn. Encourage others to challenge your ideas. Be willing to listen and be open to changing your mind. When appropriate, reward others for helping you to see things from their perspective.

Operate with a Strong Results Orientation

Leaders with a strong results orientation focus on efficiency and effectiveness. They ensure that goals are clear. They then create pathways for achieving goals by the choices they make in using their resources, both time and budget.

How to Be Results Focused

Ensure you understand your organization’s vision and mission. Next, ensure absolute clarity on the specific goals for which you and your group will be held accountable. Communicate these goals frequently, providing feedback on progress. Seek input and ideas from direct reports, colleagues and others on how to reduce obstacles, enhance efficiency. Prioritize ruthlessly. Face obstacles directly. Hold yourself and others accountable. Celebrate milestone achievements.

Solve Problems Effectively

Have you ever noticed that some people seem to be natural-born problem solvers? These people are adept at finding solutions to difficult or complex issues: they are valued in well run organizations. Problem solvers have the ability to work through layers of details, removing bias, gathering critical intelligence.

How to Solve Problems Effectively

In our 26 years of consulting with organizations large and small, it is clear that the best problem solvers use a structured problem-solving process.

  • They start with problem definition. Be sure all stakeholders agree on this.

  • The next step is to frame the problem, reflecting appropriate points of view. For multi-faceted problems it is appropriate to look at the problem from multiple frames, as though taking a 3D view. Ensure all stakeholders’ views are included.

  • Gather needed intelligence, ensuring you have the data and information needed to understand thoroughly each stakeholder’s view.

  • Working with stakeholders, explore root causes to the problem

  • After gathering intelligence, you are ready to develop alternatives. What are the options that should be considered to solve the problem? Resist the temptation to accept the easy, early options. Often the best alternatives require creativity, thinking outside the box.

  • Assess the risks and select the best alternative.

  • Develop an action plan that people buy into.

  • Follow up to ensure implementation occurs according to the action plan. Hold yourself and others accountable for successful implementation.

So there you have it. Focus on developing these leadership traits and you will be in elite company.

Interestingly, coaching is at the heart of 7 of the other 16 leadership traits that the McKinsey researchers identified as top behaviors.

*Source: “Decoding Leadership: What Really Matters” by Claudio Feser, Fernanda Mayol and Ramesh Srinivasan. McKinsey & Company, January 2015.

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