My friend, Erika Andersen at Proteus International contributes this article:

Your business is growing. Congratulations! In these strange economic times, that’s quite a feat in itself. Now the question is – how do you sustain that forward momentum, keep the business moving in the direction of growth and earnings?

I could give all the standard B-school advice: make sure you understand your customers and regularly exceed their expectations; make sure your capital expenditures and acquisitions best support your long-term goals; hire people who have the right skills and are a great fit for your culture, and treat them well. It’s all good advice, and you should definitely follow it.

But there’s one more thing you need to do: without it your business’ success will be fragile at best. You need to make sure that you’re the best, most worthy, most followable leader you’re capable of being.

People need great leaders to be their best – and great leadership is most important in times of high risk and high change. When businesses and industries are growing and changing quickly, people really need leaders who feel like strong, safe points around whom their efforts and hopes can coalesce.

We’ve all seen the lack of this: a leader with, perhaps, a great pedigree: smart, high-energy, seems to understand the business, results-oriented, well-educated. But somehow it doesn’t click. He or she just can’t seem to pull people together into a cohesive team.

It may be that the leader simply isn’t ‘followable.’ He or she may not have the specific attributes that people need to see before they’ll fully accept and embrace someone as their leader, especially during times of high change. If we don’t see these characteristics in a leader, then we’ll either retract into self-protectiveness, or we’ll look for someone else who ‘feels’ like a leader.

So what is it that makes a person feel like a leader to us, while another person – not so much?

The answer lies in our history as humans. Until fairly recently, who we accepted to be a leader was a life-and-death decision. With a poor leader, you were much more likely to starve to death, or be overrun by invading hordes. Given that, it’s fair to assume that the ability to tell good leaders from bad is a group survival mechanism, wired into all of us.

And the key to that wiring lives in stories. Think of it this way: if you can’t read (and most people couldn’t for most of our history), stories are a great way to pass on wisdom about how to survive and prosper; they’re memorable and easily spread. Every society in the world has “leader stories” – stories in which a young hero has to demonstrate a handful of attributes in order to slay the monster, win the princess, become the king – and live happily ever after. And these stories have an astonishing degree of consensus, all around the world, about what those attributes are. Think of these stories as our looking-for-leaders wiring made explicit: they are saying, in effect, “Only allow those people to lead who demonstrate these qualities.”

The qualities that show up, again and again in these stories are: far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy.

That is, we require leaders who share a compelling and inclusive view of a future we can achieve together (far-sighted); who remain committed to that vision and to us and the enterprise through adversity and challenge (passionate); who can make difficult decisions with limited information, even when that’s uncomfortable for them (courageous); who reflect on their experience, learn from it, share their learning and make the moral decisions (wise); who believe in us and share what they have – knowledge, power, authority, and resources (generous); and who – most of all – can be relied upon t keep their word and do what they say they will do (trustworthy).

Fortunately for us, these qualities are observable and developable. You can find out if you’re seen as this kind of leader – and you can do something about it if you’re not. The foundational requirements for developing these attributes are an honest self-awareness, a real openness to feedback, and the ability to listen. If you can be accurate about where you are now as a leader, and you want to get better, you can find people to help you develop the attributes you lack.

The very good news is that if you focus consistently on developing these attributes, you can become the leader you most want to be: the leader who is fully accepted. You’ll be the kind of leader who can continue to catalyze growth – the leader people look to and say, We’re with you – let’s go.

 

Since 1980, Erika Andersen has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business building that is uniquely tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture. She and her colleagues at Proteus International, Inc. offer practical methods and skills for individuals, teams, and companies to clarify and then achieve their hoped-for-future. In her most recent book, Leading So People Will Follow, respected leadership coach and popular Forbes blogger Erika Andersen explores the leadership characteristics that inspire followers to fully support their leaders. Using Andersen’s proven approach, new leaders and veterans alike have increased their capacity for leading in a way that creates loyalty, commitment, and results. Step-by-step, Andersen lays out six key attributes (farsightedness, passion, courage, wisdom, generosity, and trustworthiness) that offer people, at all levels within an organization, the tools to think and behave as fully accepted leaders.

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