What makes a great leader? Possessing qualities such as confidence, vision, decisiveness, integrity and persistence are often cited. Pictured above is Shahjahan Begum (1838 – 1901), who was the popular and effective Nawab Begum of Bhopal, the princely state in central India, from 1868 – 1901. During her reign she achieved several noteworthy operational efficiencies, including conducting a census, modernizing the weaponry of her military troops, raising the salaries of her troops, improving the tax revenue system and issuing the first postage stamps of Bhopal. Listed below are 10 characteristics often attributed to great leaders.
Vision During the devastating 1974 famine that struck Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi economist, banker and social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus was inspired to make a small start-up loan ($27 U.S.) to a group of 42 families, so that they could purchase materials and make items to sell without borrowing from a bank and paying a predatory interest rate. He discovered that even a very small loan could make a tangible difference to poor people but unfortunately, banks refused to lend to them at a reasonable interest rate due to a perceived high risk of default.
To confirm his initial observation about the power of micro loans, Yunus launched a research project at Chittagong University, where he was on the faculty of the Economics Department, to design and study a credit delivery system that would provide banking services to the rural poor. In October 1983 his project was authorized by Bangladeshi national legislation to operate as Grameen Bank. In 2006, Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance.
Authenticity Madam C.J. Walker, the orphaned daughter of freed slaves and a former laundress, in 1905 founded a hair care products company, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. That she was both female and African-American in a time of enormous discrimination and limitations placed on those of her gender and race was apparently beside the point. As all successful entrepreneurs do, Walker saw a problem, set about solving it and monetized the solution. She was not afraid to dream big and take action.
Initially, Walker made batches of hair care potions herself, in a washtub, and personally sold them door to door to friends and neighbors in Denver, CO, where she had moved to give herself a fresh start after marrying at age 14, becoming a mother at age 17 and widowed at 20 years old. To persuade women to try the products, she gave free demonstrations that created the necessary buzz.
By 1908, Walker had hired and trained a team of female sales representatives and by 1910 she employed 950 representatives who crisscrossed the country, making sales and creating loyal customers. The company expanded internationally, when her products became available in the Caribbean and South America. By 1917, Walker had become the nation’s first female self-made millionaire, founder and Chief Executive of the country’s most successful African-American and woman-owned business.
Integrity Honesty and integrity are foundational ingredients in developing trust and essential to establishing credibility. A leader’s credibility is central to his/her ability to influence others and provide strong leadership.
Warren Buffett, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the multinational holding company that wholly owns Duracell Batteries, Geico Insurance, Netjets, Dairy Queen and other well-known companies, pays very strong attention to integrity and honesty both when evaluating potential investments and when selecting managers for his businesses. “You’re looking for three things, generally, in a person,” says Buffett, “intelligence, energy and integrity. If they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two.”
Passion Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online shoe sales giant Zappos, has made customer satisfaction and company culture his mission and he is passionate about both. Hsieh regularly states that money shouldn’t be the most important company goal and that passion has been a key element in the enormous success of Zappos. Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose (2013) was written with the intention of spreading the message of using passion to both find one’s purpose and turn a profit.
Innovation In a July 2019 interview for the influential business-themed podcast Masters of Scale, host Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, interviewed Tory Burch, co-founder of her eponymous women’s wear company, to share key insights about how Burch so effectively scaled her company, which now has more than 250 boutiques on five continents and the collection is carried in more than 3,000 department stores and specialty shops around the world.
“I’ve always been a risk-taker,” Burch confessed as she detailed a strategic decision that in 2005 saw her launch an e-commerce website to make her merchandise available online, a practice that was nearly unimaginable in high-end retail at the time. Along the way, she “did trunk shows in different cities across the country and got a feel for where it would make sense to open more boutiques.”
Patience As Burch and Hoffman spoke more specifically about the episode’s theory of how a company might successfully scale, Hoffman observed, “It’s this combination of patient watchfulness and explosive speed that lets companies grow fast and go the distance.” Hoffman said of Burch, “You may have noticed as she spoke that she has clarity. You have to know what you’re building and what you’re waiting for.” Patience takes courage and confidence and demonstrates the leader’s faith that worthwhile results will be achieved when the time is right.
Decisiveness Strategic decisiveness is among the most vital success attributes for leaders in every position and every industry. Indecisiveness can severely cripple both your business and your life, potentially stunting growth, limiting financial success and diminishing personal satisfaction.
In a 2010 study, Psychologist Georges Potworowski at the University of Michigan found that certain personality traits (e.g., emotional stability, social boldness and feeling in control) predict why some people are more decisive than others. Decisively gifted leaders make it clear from the beginning that while they will carefully consider the opinions of others, they will ultimately choose what they judge to be best for their team. These leaders make the decision early on and move quickly to enlist all parties to implement that decision. Some members of the team may not be thrilled with the choice but in the end, most are quietly pleased to have clarity of direction.
Persistence Jewelry designer Tal Man, cofounder of Talia Jewelry, initially opened a small workshop where she designed and sold custom-made fine jewelry. As her customer list grew, she transitioned from operating a small custom jewelry house to becoming the creative director of a much larger enterprise that has customers on every continent.
Man faced the challenges associated with rapid growth and expansion boldly as her company scaled. She is happy to inspire fellow entrepreneurs, advising, “Never take no for an answer. I don’t even hear the word ‘no.’ When someone closed the door in my face, I went in through the window.” Additionally she says, “Know who you are seeking business advice from. Know what that person’s fear is. Is that person afraid of trying new things or going in a new direction? Or is the person’s fear about losing money? Don’t listen to the fears of others. Ask the right person for advice, ask someone who doesn’t have fear.”
Communication It’s a two-way street if you’re doing right. Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways and (now defunct) Virgin Records says, “Listening is one of the most important skills that anyone can have. That’s a very Virgin trait. Listening enables us to learn from each other, from the marketplace and from the mistakes that must be made in order to get anywhere that is original and disruptive. I learn so much from guests and employees that way.”
“Researching the competition has never been the Virgin way. Many of our products and services come about because we pay attention to what the market is missing or what’s not being done well. The commitment is about doing things differently.”
Accountability “The buck stops here” is a phrase that was popularized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. The phrase refers to the notion that a leader has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions.
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Photograph: Nawab Shahjahan Begum (1838 – 1901) has been credited with the authorship of several books, written in Urdu. One book discussed socio-political conditions that existed during her reign and another examined the customs of purdah and the hijab followed by women in Asia and Egypt.