This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Execution" by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the most important qualities of a leader? Why is humbleness an important leadership trait?

In their book Execution, business leaders Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan share the qualities you must embody to be a great leader. According to the authors, without these qualities, you will simply not be able to execute and succeed.

Here are the most important qualities of a leader, according to Bossidy and Charan.

Quality #1: Be Curious and Engaged

The first important quality of a leader is to engage with your employees. Good leaders break through the celebrity facade that often accompanies rank. They don’t smile and wave from a platform at annual gatherings. Instead, they remove their sunglasses, have real conversations, and listen more than they talk. 

Bossidy and Charan encourage you to abandon the comfort of your office and get out and talk to people at all levels of your company. Get to know them. What’s working well for them? What’s not working as well as it could? What ideas or requests do they have? You’ll probably be surprised by what you discover. Their insights could inform your next big decision or inspire a breakthrough innovation.

Also, be sure to extend your curiosity beyond company walls to gather intelligence on consumers. Observe consumer behavior so you’re in touch with what’s happening and what risks are on the horizon. Your discoveries, the authors explain, will guide you around pivotal decisions that could either accelerate or hamper growth. 

Once you have sufficient knowledge and data, Bossidy and Charan encourage, apply the insights you gain. The more aware you are of what’s happening in and around your company, the better decisions you’ll make. Then, when one of your subordinates says, “That goal isn’t possible. There’s no way,” you’ll be able to have an informed discussion about the capacity across the whole company that does make it possible.

How to Surface Valuable Information You Can Use

How do you get people to open up to you? What should you be listening for when they do? Further, how can you possibly keep track of all the information you gather? Let’s expand upon Bossidy and Charan’s recommendations so you feel confident as you engage with others.

Talking face-to-face with your employees—Having authentic, unscripted conversations with subordinates comes easier to some than others. To make conversations easier, learn to overcome barriers to good listening by asking clarifying questions and staying attuned to nonverbal cues. 

Furthermore, whereas Bossidy and Charan focus on discussing work-related matters with staff, Bill Campbell in Trillion Dollar Coach describes the value of getting to know your staff as human beings—talking to them about their personal lives helps foster connection and reinforces job satisfaction.

Gathering consumer data—What consumer data or information should you gather specifically? Consider looking into the psychology of consumer behavior to align your company’s actions with consumers’ typical behavior patterns. For example, learning what motivates people to select one product over another can help you design marketing that highlights the particular features in your product that customers desire.

Tracking employees’ output—How can a leader realistically track employees’ productivity and workload across the entire company so they can make good decisions? Creative employee monitoring methods can help you stay informed in a way that’s practical and sustainable. Time-tracking software, for example, will allow you to see how much time employees spend on each task and what tasks they’re currently focusing on. You could also conduct a morning huddle where everyone shares their top priority for the day and, if necessary, requests support from other team members.  

Quality #2: Be Humble 

Next, keep your ego in check, and never assume you have all the answers. Simply put, you don’t know what you don’t know. Look to others who can complement your abilities and expand your awareness. As Bossidy and Charan emphasize, there is tremendous value in seeking multiple perspectives on important issues. Others’ unique experiences and knowledge will allow you to make more informed decisions—about business strategy, someone’s potential, or a critical business move. Furthermore, you can’t correct mistakes and make the best decisions if you close yourself off to others’ ideas and insights. 

(Shortform note: There are many other benefits to listening to other people’s perspectives that are arguably just as vital as those the authors describe. People with different personality types—introverts versus extroverts, for example—can share how likely they are to respond to a particular product, marketing approach, or communication strategy, which will allow you to see the probable impact of key decisions from multiple angles. Also, people who represent a diversity of races, genders, cultural backgrounds, and sexual orientations can offer valuable insights from unique perspectives. Research has shown that diverse groups foster more innovation than homogenous groups.) 

To ensure you bring forward the best ideas, don’t assume others will contribute their thoughts without prompting: Be proactive. Request and be open to candid feedback. Encourage people to challenge you, and reward those who do. Make it safe for people to disagree—with you and each other. A workplace without occasional conflict should be a red flag that people aren’t telling the truth.

How to Navigate Power Dynamics to Take Advantage of Feedback

Bossidy and Charan don’t go into detail on the effect of power dynamics when it comes to giving and receiving feedback. As the leader, the way you respond to critical feedback will likely have an outsized effect on people’s willingness to approach you in the future, given the power differential between you. If you react negatively—even once—people may not make another attempt, fearful of repercussions. 

So how can you put employees at ease so they feel empowered to freely share their ideas and speak up when they have a problem? Here are some steps you can take:

Request feedback confidentially through a third party. In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith says that people are likely to share only positive feedback if you ask them for feedback directly. However, when you request feedback indirectly through a third party, people will be more inclined to share their honest opinions because their identities will not be linked to their specific comments. 

Explicitly request public criticism from your employees. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott says that receiving critical feedback in a public forum, like a company-wide meeting, fulfills multiple goals. First, you display the value you place on critical feedback. Second, you establish yourself as a strong leader who is committed to constant improvement. Third, you save time by fielding each critique once rather than multiple times. 

To break through people’s initial discomfort at delivering negative feedback in public, ask a team member you trust to disagree with you or share a critique at an upcoming meeting. Others will likely follow their example. Also, ask questions during meetings that solicit critical feedback, such as “How can I better support you?”

Quality #3: Be Confident and Make Clear Decisions 

Finally, people look to you for guidance, so be sure you’re not missing in action. No matter what happens—inside your company or in the external environment—it’s your job to create certainty by projecting confidence and making clear decisions. If the stock market crashes, if power outages shut down operations, or if new regulations impact the bottom line, be sure your voice is the one your people hear loudest. As Bossidy and Charan warn, if you don’t provide clarity, rumors and misinformation can take hold. Then, people may get nervous and start looking for a different company that seems more stable. 

(Shortform note: How can you create certainty in uncertain times? It’s important to be transparent about challenges the company is facing. Your employees will easily see through manipulated attempts to gloss over obvious challenges. You can acknowledge people’s fears and retain their trust and commitment by focusing on two main factors: the strengths of your team and what you’re doing now to provide stability. To address rumors and misinformation, add rumor-busting to your meeting agenda and empower junior managers with the authority to quash rumors.)

The 3 Most Important Qualities of a Leader

———End of Preview———

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Here's what you'll find in our full Execution summary :

  • What execution in business is and why it matters
  • The three core functions that leaders must perform to execute well
  • The three important qualities leaders must have to execute well

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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