Three Qualities for Leadership Success

July 24, 2020

Three Qualities for Leadership Success

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of business and companies are now working on ways to return to a more normal operation. At the same time, the widespread outcry over George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement has forced companies to grapple with overcoming workplace bias. Today’s business landscape is full of challenges and change around every corner.

In light of these current circumstances and future challenges that will arise, leaders that succeed will share three important characteristics: courage, humility and empathy. 

1. Courage

According to Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, and Carly Fiorina, Chairman of Carly Fiorina Enterprises, leaders are called on to recognize, speak and act on the truth. However, these actions will not please everyone. 

"It's easier to go along to get along," said Fiorina in a June 14 LinkedIn discussion with Taylor. "No matter what you do, someone will criticize. That just goes with the territory. That is the price of leadership."

Brene Brown, author of five New York Times bestsellers and a research professor at the University of Houston, said that it’s not fear that gets in the way of courageous leadership but self-protection. Brown encourages leaders to develop the skills to have tough conversations, teach people to recover from failures and resist the bias towards action before identifying the real problem. 

Issues of inclusivity, diversity and equity are difficult and sensitive topics, but brave leaders don't shy away from them. "If you can't have those conversations because they make you uncomfortable, you will not be leading in the next five years. Period," Brown said. 

2. Humility

Humility, Fiorina explained, means that a leader doesn't just talk at employees, but is willing to realize that they don't know it all, and to listen, question and ask for help.

One way to build humility is perspective taking—for example, imagining what others would likely see, think or feel in a certain situation, according to Elad N. Sherf, assistant professor at Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison, professor at NYU Stern School of Business University. Learning requires the humility to realize one has something to learn.

3. Empathy

Empathy, Taylor said, is “the key to solving so many of our most vexing problems.” 

A study of 400 leaders, conducted by DDI, a global HR consulting company, found that empathy is the leadership skill most strongly and consistently linked to performance.

"Leaders who were weaker in empathy were weaker in job performance," said Evan Sinar, Ph.D., Chief Scientist and Vice President at DDI. "It is also the leadership skill that most leaders struggle with. Only 40 percent demonstrate that effectively."

To build empathy, start with an assessment to find spots where behaviors and activities communicate a lack of empathy. Then, cultural and programmatic solutions can be used at all levels of the business, including practices like coaching and mentoring.

Leaders require many skills to successfully navigate today’s business landscape. Courage, humility and empathy are three critical characteristics that all leaders need to build to better serve their employees, peers and community at large. 

The Authors: 

Deborah Stadtler is Managing Editor at SHRM’s Executive Network, HR People + Strategy.