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February 28, 2022 | 11 Mins Read

What Makes a Great Leader Great?

February 28, 2022 | 11 Mins Read

What Makes a Great Leader Great?

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By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service

It takes only a glimpse at news headlines to be prompted to reflect on the impact leadership has on our world, our lives, and our future. You see incredible leaders doing deeds that will have a ripple effect for generations – along with the stark contrast of leaders abusing power. And whether you consider the world stage, tech, banking, or any other industry, you can find examples of how the power leaders hold can be channeled in such different ways. 

This makes me think about what it is that makes a great leader great – what is it about their character or their personality or their experiences or their drive that enables those positive examples that we’d all like to see more of? Before you read further, let me just provide the disclaimer that I don’t have all of the answers. But it is a topic I’ve been thinking quite a bit about, and I thought I’d share some of those thoughts with you all. 

In my role, I have the opportunity to speak with many leaders and it does give you a real flavor for the differences that exist – as well as an evolution that has taken place. It’s clear that over the last few years, many leaders have begun to adopt more progressive viewpoints that are a departure from the older, lead from the top, results at all costs style of leadership. Modern leaders tend to recognize the importance of company culture and value the contribution of employees at all ranks, and they tend to be less concerned with being the smartest or best or strongest in the room and more concerned with curating an ecosystem of talent that can innovate and drive results. 

If you missed my recent two-part podcast interview with James Mylett, SVP, U.S. Digital Buildings at Schneider Electric, I’d urge you to go back and have a listen. Much of what I’m going to share below are thoughts formed from that conversation – and while I do believe James is a great leader, I don’t mean to put him in the hot seat of being the one to aspire to, but rather to use some of the points he made during our conversation to reflect on some of the traits I think are helping today’s strongest leaders excel. 

Acceptance of the Journey of Continuous Development

James, who is Brooklyn born, went straight to work after high school. He tells how his very first boss instilled in him the criticality of continuous development and self-growth and made it a condition of his employment for James to get his Associates Degree. A bit further along in his journey, James had another leader who reinforced this mindset. “While at Carrier, I had a leader who said, ‘Your parents grew up in an era where if they showed up for work every day, worked really hard, were loyal to the company, they could count on lifelong employment. That deal doesn’t exist anymore. Nobody talks about it out loud, but if you are working for a great organization, you can count on lifelong employability if you take advantage of the learning opportunities that they put in front of you.”

This mindset stuck with James, and he has always made it a priority to learn, evolve his thinking and practices, and develop new skills. I think this trait is very important and one that great leaders share – they don’t achieve a level of success or “rank” and allow themselves to feel they’ve crossed some sort of finish line; rather, they recognize the need to continually evolve and improve. 

Authenticity

This is the hardest trait on this list for me to describe somehow in words, because in my personal experience someone just is or isn’t. James is certainly authentic, and this has been clear to me since I met him over a decade ago – and my impression has been corroborated by every direct report of James’ I’ve ever spoken to, who all speak his praises. 

Perhaps this comes down to some concoction of humbleness, no pretense, kindness, self-confidence but never cockiness, honesty, and a little vulnerability? That’s the best I can do to describe what authenticity feels like to me, and I’m certain it is a lacking description. But I do believe great leaders are authentic, and that their authenticity is part of what inspires teams and individuals to want to follow them and learn from them. 

From James’ perspective, two important aspects are the leader’s agenda and the environment in which they are operating. “I think agenda makes a difference. My agenda is to help teams win and to help people who want to get better, get better,” he says. “But the key is, are you a part of an organization that is willing to create an environment to where you can be authentic? As we all talk about the war for talent, as people get experiences with organizations that allow them to be the best version of themselves there, and to be their genuine selves there, the tolerance level for any environment that doesn’t goes way down.”

The Ability to Balance the Now and the Next

James and I talked a number of times during our interview about the leaders’ need to balance the present and a view of the future – to keep an eye on the mid and long term in every decision and action. This challenge is one that many of the leaders I speak with lament – how do you think ahead or drive innovation when you are constantly struggling to keep up with the daily demands? 

“I always try to do is stay focused on the long game. When trying to make big change in an organization, it never happens in a big step. It’s small incremental steps over a long period of time that make the biggest lasting sustainable change,” says James. “Larry Levin wrote a book called Top Teaming. And in it he talks about how leaders have to find the right balance between the now, the new, and the next. And this has always been the case, but what has changed is speed. When you think about cars, it took 62 years for cars to get to 50 million users. It took credit cards 28 years to get to 50 million, debit cards 12 years, PayPal five years, and then Pokemon GO got to 50 million users in 19 days. Think about that! Think about all that change and just how fast it’s moving today. It’s dramatically different. And so, we have to adjust our leadership style. We have to adjust the environments that we’re creating, otherwise we’re not going to attract and retain the talent that’s going to be needed to win in these new markets.”

Cultivation of Resilience

Certainly, over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the importance of resilience amplified more than it has been in most of our lifetimes. In my mind, resilience is a mix of patience and perspective. But when we think about the role of resilience in leadership, it is both personal as well as the acceptance of your role in nurturing resilience among your teams. This can be a tall task, particularly in a landscape where burnout is at an all-time high. 

“In today’s environment, it’s hard to survive if you don’t have resilience,” says James. “As a leader, you have to remember that you’re the person that you used to look up to. And what is it about that person when you looked up that drew you to them and if you had to inject some improvement in that, what would it have been? Because that’s your opportunity today. So, personally, we have to check ourselves and make sure that we’re filling our own buckets up to where our resilience levels are high. Because our organization’s going to get our cue from us.”

According to James, a big part of this is mindset and also setting boundaries for yourself to step away and rest and recharge so that you don’t burn out. “When I think about leadership attributes, mindset is one of the biggest things that’s going to make a difference on whether or not you win or lose,” he says. “There’s a movie called Facing the Giants. If you go to You Tube, type of Facing the Giants and Death Crawl. It’s all about a coach seeing something in a player that he didn’t recognize in himself. And it goes back to this notion about the influence that you have as a leader. If you don’t think we’re going to win, they won’t think we’re going to win. And so, what comes out of our mouth is so critical in terms of setting the tone for the organization.”

Integrity and Accountability

You may assume that every great leader has high integrity (although we have to be careful with assumptions), but the point James made that I loved is that a leader’s responsibility when it comes to integrity isn’t only a personal. In addition to personal integrity, great leaders also take on the role of ensuring their teams are accountable for integrity as well. 

“We know failure shouldn’t be fatal, but the area where it has a potential to be fatal is an integrity. And it comes in a lot of different flavors, but at the core of it, it’s how you carry yourself. Are you authentic? Are you trustworthy? Are you someone that people can count on? Are you transparent?” says James. “When I think about integrity as an organization, the antidote for that malice is the culture that you build. And the purposeful intent on culture. One of our pillars at Schneider Electric is to embrace different. And that we call out bias where we see it. So, you think about that, you’re on a job site and you see something, what do you do? Do you step up, do you speak up or do you just look the other way and keep going? Our core value says you’re calling it out. And, so, it’s that type of culture build that creates the antibodies against the wrong behavior on the integrity front.”

Embracing Curiosity

I’m a big believer in the power of curiosity – I think inquisitiveness and a hunger to learn and understand combats so much closed mindedness. I also think great leaders who have a strong sense of curiosity are not only more likely to look for the non-obvious answers or ideas, but also to accept the reality that they aren’t the only intelligent and valuable person in the picture – because their curiosity helps them see the intelligence and value of the teams around them.

“There was an article that was written on my father that referred to him as a searcher and I think that I inherited that trait,” says James. “When I bump into situations, I have tendency to want to unpack them. Today’s environment is probably the richest environment for somebody that’s wired like me, because there are so many opportunities for transformation. And so, what I try to do as a leader is immerse myself in situations that allow that opportunity for me to get engaged.”

James points to his adoption of the Oz Principle as a leadership evolution born of his curiosity that has also helped him see the value in promoting more curiosity among his teams by introducing them to new experiences. “One of the models I subscribe to is Oz Principle, which basically says that your beliefs are driven from the experiences that you have. So, this curiosity mode gets me in a position where I’m getting different experiences today than before and learning as I go,” he says.

Prioritizing Problem Analysis

James brought up an excellent point about the need to focus more on the root cause analysis of problems than to jump to problem solving. This is a point that I truly feel so many could benefit from really pondering, because many of the struggles I see companies facing today are a result of racing to a soliton before truly understanding the problem (or opportunity). 

“I want to make sure that our team is focused on root cause analysis for problem solving,” James says. “When you think about a problem, everybody wants to go to ideation, to solve. We don’t spend enough time defining what the problem is and then doing the root cause analysis. Every organization I’ve worked with, brilliant people get in a room and God help us if there’s a whiteboard, the next thing you know you’ve got all these great ideas up there and then there’s a program that gets deployed. My preference is to start at the problem and work backwards from that and put a solution in place that’s supported with data. That’ll really move the needle because you know that that’s the root cause for the problem.”

Why the default to problem solving over root cause analysis? It’s more work, and many aren’t patient enough to do that extra work or perhaps their ego dissuades them from considering that they may need to better understand the problem to be solved. “It takes hard work to really dig in and to get the root cause. And it takes courage to face into the data when it doesn’t support what you thought the root cause was, and that happens a lot. You don’t want to get paralyzed by the data, but it has to have role in the conversation,” says James.

Treating People Well

Again, you may be thinking – um, duh, Sarah. But sadly, we see far too many examples of leaders who want to lead by demand and use their power as force rather than recognize how power can actually be amplified when you share it with your teams. Treating people well means having empathy, it means considering – not catering to – their feelings and needs, and recognizing their efforts and contributions.

“Part of what’s changing is people buy in for their reasons, not ours. So, what is our workforce’s reasons for buying in and does the culture that you’re purposefully building match up to what they’re wanting to buy into? And so, we talk about having an organization that’s focused, that’s purposeful, that’s driven, that’s going to achieve great things while is also being benevolent and kind, and gracious. That’s a great combination to have, and it’s a value proposition that absolutely resonates with the emerging workforce,” says James. “I think for us, it’s important that when we put our front line out in front of the customers that they’re in the right state of mind, and they feel genuinely appreciated in what they’re doing. And they understand how, what they’re doing is helping us. I get a report at the end of every month on our net satisfaction scores for the whole organization and I see everybody that got a nine and a 10 and I recognize each of them. If nothing else, just to let them know that I see what they’re doing, and I appreciate it. Back when I was a frontline technician if I was getting a note from the president of the division or senior vice president, it made a difference. I think we underestimate that sometimes when we get to these positions, just the impact that we have on lifting people up.”