As a recruiter of leaders and senior managers, I’m often asked “what are the qualities of a good leader that you look for in candidates?”
At this level, it’s often the case that most candidates I meet can probably do the job, at least to some extent. The interview has to confirm that they have the necessary experience and knowledge to perform the role, of course.
A track record of success is essential. I want to know what they have achieved, and how they achieved it. What obstacles they encountered, and how they overcame them. And what failures they have had, and what they’ve learned from them.
I’m a big fan of Lou Adler’s two-question interview process. It provides a great framework for a discussion about what someone has done in their career. It also gives a good indication of how relevant that experience is to the assignment I’m working on.
Competence is expected. But for me, it’s the non-technical qualities of a leader that mark out the best candidates. I want to know how they are going to do the job. And what the candidate in front of me will bring that sets them apart from the other candidates.
What are the qualities of a good leader?
So, moving away from technical ability, these are some of things I look for in interviews (in no particular order):
A high level of self-awareness: someone who has good emotional intelligence, who understands their strengths and weaknesses, who is good with people and recognises how people respond to them; someone who is in control of their emotions and is open to feedback, whether it is positive or negative – this is a great start for me.
Good leadership judgement: the ability to get things done “with and through others” is one of the primary tasks of a leader. This means knowing when to adapt your style to suit different people and different situations. Leading and taking control at times, but empowering and encouraging your team at others.
Motivation: this is an important factor and isn’t the same as ambition. I meet lots of highly ambitious people who I wouldn’t put in charge of… well, anything! But what drives them? What are their values? What are they interested in professionally and personally? Do they set and achieve goals – at work, at home, in other interests. Do they stretch themselves – and encourage/help others to do the same?
Curiosity: they don’t have to be creative or innovative. But they should be interested in a broad range of things. This might be looking to see how things can be done better – a sense of continuous improvement. Or it might be be a demonstration that they keep on top of industry developments, use their networks well, or seeks out learning opportunities.
Trust: this is a big one for me. Any leader needs to work with a team and within an organisation, and that means they need to be able to build trust quickly. That means honesty, integrity, authenticity… all the things we’d expect from a person in authority.
Adaptability and resilience: the willingness to change direction quickly when needed rather than be stubbornly wedded to their ideas can save businesses and livelihoods. Plus, the ability to work under pressure without it affecting their behaviour and performance is crucial.
Critical thinking skills: this is considered to be one of the most important qualities in good leaders. It helps individuals and teams diagnose problems and identify good solutions – sometimes those that aren’t the most obvious answer. It can also help to resolve conflicts because it’s about being able to be objective – to see the wood for the trees.
Good decision-making: being able to decide quickly, logically and with confidence is a key part of leadership. It means the right decisions are made in order to move things forward – and often without having all the facts.
Openness and transparency: this is an incredibly important leadership quality that can often be overlooked. Leaders should be open to ideas from their teams, understand the importance of sharing information with them, and be able to give (and be open to receiving) honest and open feedback on how they are performing.
Responsibility and accountability: I’ve lost count of how many senior leadership candidates I have interviewed who find this a problem! Blaming others, the lack of resources, the “market”, the government, or anything other than taking responsibility is widespread. And it’s of no use to most of the clients I work with.
Most of us are a work in progress
These are just some of the leadership qualities that set exceptional candidates apart from the rest. There are many more of course: a leader’s job also usually involves strategic thinking, promoting team spirit and a sense of belonging, having vision, and inspiring others.
Leadership is a multifaceted role requiring a broad range of skills and qualities. And different clients require a different mix of those skills and qualities at different times.
It’s important to remember that these attributes are not innate; they can be developed and refined over time. And very few leaders are without need for development. A good leadership assessment and an executive coach or a mentor can help you identify what you need to improve on.
So, keep striving, learning, and adapting to become the best leader you can be.