The five things that define great leaders

It doesn’t matter if I’m meeting with seasoned executives or recently arrived graduates, one of the most common questions I’m asked by employees is what do I look for when identifying emerging leaders.

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When I’m involved in an assessment process it’s usually a given they are good at their day job, so I won’t be looking to just judge their practical ability. I will be looking deeper to try and measure whether they have the skills and characteristics to transcend from a functional role into future leaders of the organisation.

"A good leader quickly recognises they are not expected to know the answer to every question."

While I’ve written before on LinkedIn about curiosity and embracing change being fundamental attributes for anybody looking to succeed in life, I thought you might be interested in some other traits I find invaluable. 


Every company talks about the importance of their values but for many people sometimes they are easier to talk about than to consistently live out.  At ANZ, I don’t just look for those leaders who are able recite our values; rather I look for those who continually demonstrate how they live those values. Our values are best summarised by ‘doing the right thing’ - whether it be by our colleagues, customers or how we go about doing business. I look for leaders who communicate both the results they expect from their teams, while also making clear the behaviours required in achieving those results.  One of the toughest challenges for all leaders is not to deal with those who get financial results but corrode corporate culture. 


Corporate life can be tough. Markets are unforgiving, change is unsettling and we all know things don’t always go to plan.  When I’m assessing the potential of emerging leaders I always try to understand how resilient they will be when hitting the set-backs we all know will come. As I mentioned, by the time they get to me we know they are good at their job.  What I want to know though is how they react when things don’t go to plan.  Are they able to bounce back from adversity? Do they have the bravery to take the tough decisions?  Do they still behave in the way you would expect of a leader?  If the answer to any of these questions is no, you need to really question their ability to take that next step. 


A good leader quickly recognises they are not expected to know the answer to every question. Rather they turn to those they trust for advice and actively listen before making decisions. It’s important for all leaders to develop an environment that encourages debate, an environment where it’s safe to raise new ideas or question the status quo. An effective leader should also seek out external views on the complex issues facing the organisation because ultimately a successful company cannot be deaf to the community in which it is operating. 


Not all decisions are easy to make and leaders know they will be called on to make tough decisions. The trick is they need to make them efficiently and stand by them. Organisations can be crippled by an indecisive leader and we’ve seen this apply equally to large and small businesses, governments and even sporting teams. Leaders need to recognise not every decision will be perfect - more often than not decisive action is better than no action at all (Of course, the active decision can actually be to take no action.). The more important skill is to learn from every decision and make sure you bring that experience to future decisions. 


When assessing leaders I will look at the team they have assembled around them. I want to see if they have developed a diverse group or simply cloned themselves. This is important because diverse teams bring diverse perspectives, often better reflecting the needs or views of customers and other stakeholders. There is little point having a group of people from the same background, and often of the same gender, taking decisions that impact the broad spectrum of society. You need as broad a perspective as possible. 

So there is a snapshot of some of the traits I look for in emerging leaders. But don't forget about communication. It would surprise many to learn how much of my time is spent on communication. Whether it is meeting with customers, staff, investors or regulators, government, media, NGOs, a large part of my job is spent communicating with these important groups. Communication does not need to be limited to large town hall type meetings, it should be incidental and could be as simple as inviting a group of employees in for a chat over a coffee. Leaders need to focus on communication as an essential part of management and an essential part of daily life. 

I’d be interested in any others that you find important.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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