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The most important quality of a successful leader

4 min read


I often talk to executives about what keeps them up at night. I hear tales of specific struggles, continuous challenges, and perplexing priorities. Time and again, one theme arises:

“How do I develop effective leaders with the skills and capabilities to drive my organization through times of complex change — both now and long after I’ve left the company?”

Greater than an individual’s angst, this problem has begun to pain organizations on a systemic level. Leadership development is failing as a practice across sectors, industries and functions.

Are you seeing it, too?

The sad state of leadership development

The reality is that many leaders feel helpless. They’re unaware of why their leadership development practices don’t work, yet they’re moving forward with the same old programs and initiatives, hoping that something will stick, that someone will be transformed as a result.

The Winter 2016 CTDO magazine feature article, “Leading in Times of Disruption and Ambiguity,” deals with this very topic.

“Leading well, gaining followership, and delivering results in the next 10 years — in which change, volatility, and industry disruption are the constant, and periods of stability and predictability are unusual — will be the challenge that underlies all else for executives and those who help develop them, “ say authors David Dotlich and Raj Ramachandran. “Effective leaders will need to be able to adapt to such a wide variety of different contexts, conditions, and situations that it will be increasingly difficult to simply teach ‘how to lead.’ What we can do instead is develop leaders who have the skills to flourish in complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments.”

Leadership skills and practices for a VUCA world

What are these skills? Emotional intelligence. Critical thinking. Decisiveness. We’ve all heard such capabilities touted as paramount for successful leaders in the 21st century. Dotlich and Ramachandran add humility, drive, agility and a strong sense of purpose to the list of qualities required by those who must lead in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) workplace.

The authors expound by detailing five leadership development best practices used by leaders who are driving lasting organizational change:

  • Put disruption front and center.
  • Discover, uphold, and live a definitive purpose.
  • Develop and demonstrate authenticity and agility.
  • Use journey-based immersion experiences to accelerate transformation.
  • Bring the ecosystem into the room.

My leadership “aha” moment

Last year, I enrolled in a leadership-development program at my organization and enjoyed one-on-one coaching for the first time in my career. I began the program expecting to be personally transformed by developing a specific skill set I had identified as imperative for a successful leader: “I need to be more assertive. I want to grow my decision making abilities. My strategic thinking skills could use some work.” My self-narrative on day one of the program said that I was insufficient as is, my strengths weren’t good enough, and I needed to become a different person to be an effective leader.

I was wrong.

The most transformative truth I realized is that I am the best leader when I am me — when I fully embody the strengths I already have at my disposal. The focus of my development should be on those skills, not on a list of leadership capabilities I assumed were necessary to attain. What a shift in thinking about effective personal leadership!

You are your best leader

I think this simple epiphany applies to all individuals and organizations. First, we need a strong foundation of evidence-based research and tested thought leadership, such as the leadership development vision outlined in Dotlich’s and Ramachandran’s CTDO article. Then, to apply these principles, we must remain authentic to ourselves and to our organizations. You are not Steve Jobs, and your organization’s culture is not Apple’s. You can’t copy one phenomenal leader’s qualities or one exceptional company’s practices as your own blueprint for success. Instead, a rigorous and ongoing process of self- and organizational growth is necessary to cultivate the most effective leadership development.

Perhaps the state of leadership development will rise from the ashes when we are empowered to be who we are as individuals and organizations.

Ann Parker is manager of the Human Capital Community of Practice and the Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice at ATD. Prior to this position, she worked at ATD for five years in an editorial capacity, primarily for TD magazine, and most recently as a senior writer and editor. In this role, she had the privilege to talk to many training and development practitioners, hear from a variety of prominent industry thought leaders, and develop a rich understanding of the profession’s content.

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