The Daily Commute — Part 3: Top 5 Traits I’ve Come to Value as a Leader

What does it take to be a great leader

“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” — Vince Lombardi

Extending on my last post I managed to have two very similar train incidents two days in a row.

An unusually cold morning especially given the heat we had the previous day, I was waiting for my train to work I noticed that there was a lady there with a golden labrador. That’s cool, I thought — dog’s are cool — I was brought up with a 4 dogs so it was safe to say I was raised to be a dog person. Everyone waited for the train to arrive. The breeze was brisk, it was well and truly autumn now! Most people including myself had underestimated how cold the morning was, still dressing in a t-shirt and jeans clearly mislead by the previous day’s heat.

As the train approached the normal shuffle towards to the doors commenced. The lady with the guide dog waited patiently as other passengers walked past her to board. I was standing towards the rear of the crowd when I heard a lady in the thick-of-it start to speak.

Could everyone please get out of the way and let this lady on.

Confused, everyone looked around — who is this crazy person and what is she going on about!?

Ignored…Everyone resumed boarding the train.

She repeated her request but this time with more assertion — Could everyone just please GET OUT OF THE WAY so she can get on!

Suddenly everyone started to catch on to what she was talking about — the lady was asking people to move aside and allow the blind lady, who waited patiently, to board. Something very surreal happened, much like Moses parting the sea — in this case the sea of people — made a clearway for the lady to board.

Why do I bring this up, because this lady was being a leader. But what drives one to be a leader? What characteristics sit behind those who are selfless and look to be of service to others?

The lady that morning displayed some of my top 5 traits that I’ve come to value about being a leader — courage, empathy, self-awareness, authenticity and ownership.

Courage

What the lady did took courage. To speak up that morning in front of a bunch of strangers takes guts!

She didn’t have to say anything, no one else did, why should she? But she did — she was a leader — she lead by example and stood up for what she believed in.

Courage is where leadership starts — courage to lead, to be vulnerable and to put yourself out there on the line for what you believe in.

Without courage things like initiative, goals, intentions, etc are nothing. You may have the best intentions but without courage you may never take that leap, to go past the point of discomfort and be vulnerable — to dive into the unknown. Courage turns thoughts into action — leadership starts here.

Empathy

Without empathy you are unable to put others before yourself — the absence of empathy and you are doing it for yourself, not because it will help others.

The lady that morning had empathy, she cared deeply about the blind lady’s well being and how it must feel to have to board a busy peak-hour train for her.

This care and compassion are at the core of being a leader. One thing I once heard and thought is surmised it nicely was —leadership is asking how are you? and actually caring what the answer is.”

If you are to look out and help others then you’re going to need to be able to sympathise with their situation. Though this empathy our emotional intelligence helps guide a leader to understand when, where and how to lead.

Self-awareness

A question I often get asked is — “if the leader is looking out for the team, who is looking after the leader?”

Often the answer to this question is no-one but at the least we hope there are peers and other leaders alike who are there to support each other.

The truth is that the personal cost of leadership is often high so I’ve learned that as a leader you need to be able to look after yourself — to know your limits — you are no use to anyone if you burn yourself out.

Often leadership is an isolated island destination where the only person who can look after you is you.

This was something I was taught a lot about at the Royal Military College, self-awareness. Both in recognising your limits in order to raise them but also to understanding when you might need to dial things back.

There are two saying in the military which for me go hand-in-hand. First: “Mission, Team, Me”. This implies that the mission or goal is the most important it comes first, second as a leader your people come next and finally you look after yourself.

There is a second saying which I believe is necessary for the success of “Mission, Team, Me” is “Individual survivability, increases team survivability which increase mission success”.

What this implies is that you must also take care of yourself. It is a balancing act. We want the mission and team to succeed but we are no good to either of them if we become a liability.

There is a perfect example of this in planes. They always insist that you place the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting others — after all you’re no good to anyone if you cannot breath!

Feels kinda contradictory but you must look after yourself so you can continue to help others.

Authenticity

No one likes a fake. A liar. A cheat.

Being honest and authentic is a crucial trait of a great leader. Without humility and candor you will never be able to build trust.

Trust and respect are the foundation which leadership is built upon.

The lady that morning was authentic with her request. She genuinely cared and wanted to help — you can’t fake that!

Being authentic is something I always strive to do, it’s one of my own personal values to be honest and have integrity — to be myself no matter the situation. This includes having humility and admitting when I’m wrong or made a mistake.

Often people get worried about this, they want to create a facade, alter how they are to be what they think the group or person wants them to be — “but I’m a leader I can’t show that I was wrong or didn’t know something, isn’t that a sign of weakness?”

Unfortunately in my experience people can usually smell out a fake when they see it. Our instincts, intuition are very atuned to it — ever had someone where you just didn’t trust them and you just couldn’t say why? — Yes some people are better than others at lying but it’s extremely hard to fake true candor and authenticity.

People will always respect you more if you are honest, humble and authentic. The quickest way to burn bridges is to pretend that you are something you’re not.

We all know that even leaders are still human and human’s aren’t perfect, we make mistakes and we don’t always have all the answers.

Ownership

Leadership is about taking responsibility when things go wrong and giving away the credit when things go well.

In the military we often talk about integrity and owning the outcome whether good or bad — Jocko Wilko a former Navy SEAL talks a lot about this in his book Extreme Ownership.

“Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

This value encapsulates one of the most important lessons I learned about leadership at the Royal Military College — taking responsibility.

In the military as a commander you are ultimately accountable for you team and expected to accept full responsibility for their actions — regardless of whether it was in your control or not. In other words, you are viewed as a leader and expected to act like one.

This is a hard pill for some to swallow, they often ask — but what if I couldn’t control it? What if it wasn’t my fault why should I take responsibility?

The reason why is because I bring it back to my previous post “you make yourself uncomfortable so others don’t have to be”. Bad leaders will push the responsibility onto someone else, find a head to chop off — that’s not leadership in my point of view — what kind of example and culture do you think you are setting by doing that?

Good leaders will bear the responsibility so other’s don’t have too. By doing so they create a culture of psychological safety, one where people feel free to be themselves and grow.

As a leader you create and manage culture whether you deliberately do it or not, you are setting the climate. Taking responsibility is a way to deliberately create a culture of psychological safety and a space where people feel free to experiment, fail and learn.

There’s a saying in the corporate world that “shit rolls downhill”. What I found in the army — and leadership — is quite the opposite, rather “shit rolls uphill because as a commander you are seen as a leader and therefore are expected to take responsibility.

Wrap up

This is by far not an exhaustive list — there are many more traits of great leaders.

Leadership is not for everyone but if you are the willing few and looking for ways in which you can improve working on these traits are a good start. Find every day actions that you can practice day-to-day to help strengthen each of these.

  • When you feel that pit in your stomach stopping you from saying what you wanted to — think courage and overcome it and speak up for what you believe in.
  • Build empathy. Spend time each day listening to others — even simply asking “how are you today?” you’d be surprised how powerful that question on a regular basis is.
  • Try to practice mindfulness regularly, self-awareness is the first pillar of emotional intelligence. Look after yourself, remember you are no good to anyone if you’re aren’t also looking out for yourself.
  • Be authentic in everything you do. Use your self-awareness to find any facades you may be putting up. Find ways to break them down. Have the courage to be humble, to be yourself — flaws-and-all — let yourself be vulnerable you’d be amazed at what that will do for building trust and respect.
  • Take ownership for your actions no matter the consequence. Take responsibility when things go wrong and give credit when things go right. Remember being a leader is not about being in the spotlight, it’s about holding others up so they can be in the spotlight.

“The hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.” — Bill George

The Daily Commute is a mini series of every day lessons I encounter on my commute to and from work each day.

Thanks for reading :)

Product person, agile nerd and cat herder 🐈 Find me at www.antmurphy.me