On Being a Leader (Peter Bush – Guest Contributor)

I was introduced to a new think tank this summer – Bain & Company. I have had fun reading through some of their research. A piece published in 2016 on what makes inspiring leaders has deeply impressed me.

Let’s stop for a moment to assess that word “leader” – all of us function or can function as leaders in some aspect of our life. From the recognized leader to people who by their lives and examples invite people to imitate them, we are all leaders.

The research team started by asking 2,000 employees this question: what leadership traits inspire you to follow a leader? They then tested those results with a larger sample of 10,000 employees and clients.

When I saw they came back with 33 characteristics of the inspiring leader, I was depressed. Thirty-three things leaders need to work on and develop. That felt overwhelming, until I read deeper.

One attribute stands out above all the others: Centeredness. The study defines Centeredness as “a state of greater mindfulness, achieved by engaging all parts of the mind to be fully present.” Centeredness “improves one’s ability to stay level-headed, cope with stress, empathize with others and listen more deeply.”

Okay, setting that aside, what else really matters. The answer is: any of the other 32 traits is fine; in fact, people who develop just three other traits in addition to Centeredness will be in the top 10% of inspiring leaders. Only 10% of inspiring leaders have four or more of the characteristics. In fact, people can be inspiring leaders with just one of the traits.

The researchers grouped the traits in four sets of eight each.

  • Developing inner resources: Stress tolerance; Self-regard; Emotional self-awareness; Flexibility; Independence; Self-actualization; Emotional expression; Optimism
  • Connecting with others: Vitality; Humility; Empathy; Development; Assertiveness; Listening; Expressiveness; Commonality
  • Setting the tone: Worldview; Openness; Shared ambition; Follow through; Responsibility; Unselfishness; Recognition; Balance
  • Leading the team:  Vision; Focus; Harmony; Direction; Empowerment; Co-creation; Servanthood; Sponsorship
    Definitions of these traits can be found  at  https://www.bain.com/insights/how-leaders-inspire-cracking-the-code/

The traits are diverse, at times seemingly contradictory. The diversity, however, reminds us that leaders come in all kinds of types. There is no single way to be a leader.

It would be interesting to ask friends and close colleagues what traits they see in you and build on those traits. It would be equally interesting to encourage colleagues to develop the traits you see in them.

Peter Bush
Former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada