Real Leaders

The Make or Break Qualities of a Real Leader

Universal truths are arduous – if not impossible – to identify and articulate when it comes to leadership philosophy and effectiveness. Those seeking the secrets to success are typically well read on the topic (with an impressive bookshelf dedicated to the discussion) and passionate about their perceived thematic threads between Winston Churchill and Warren Buffett.

We have all seen it … the list that outlines the key characteristics of dynamic, driven leaders. Titans of industry and popular politicians. While there is ample information and inspiration to pull from and apply to one’s personal approach, the number of observations and recommendations can be overwhelming.

With decades of on-the-ground (though not always written down) leadership experience – within industries with acute emphasis on inspiring and influencing others – I have my own simplified perspective on what it takes to lead a talented team and act with influence. These are consistent characteristics that come from someone who has navigated a substantial and uphill hike to the upper echelon of meaningful management positions.

Sure, there are no shortage of lists about leadership and many authors are incredibly qualified to comment about this topic, but for me, there are three qualities that make-or-break a real leader.

1. Understand Your Business. 

Somewhat self-explanatory? Maybe. Non-negotiable for effective leadership? Most definitely. A great leader knows the nooks and crannies of their organization. In addition to maniacal management of the numbers and understanding of the market, they see beyond the steady drumbeat of the business and recognize the nuances. 

The most effective leaders I’ve had the opportunity to meet know their smallest customer, as well as their largest. Priorities must be in order, but the ins and outs of the procurement department performance – and the people within the department – get a real leader equally energized as an impressive earnings report. The leader shares their understanding – the team needs to know you know – but as a way of thinking and learning with the team, not lauding over them.

2. Put an Emphasis on Interpersonal Communication. 

The best leaders understand how to manage and maneuver through office politics and are steadfast in their statements. They understand the interpersonal dynamics of their team and adapt their approach to meet individuals’ expectations and inclinations. Emotional IQ is included, but it extends well beyond empathy and the ability to read a room. 

Real leaders put an emphasis on expression. They pay equal attention to what they say (or write), how they say it and to whom they are speaking. Each interaction is an opportunity to motivate an employee to move the mission forward. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, interpersonal communication isn’t a hereditary character trait. It’s a skill that can be learned and strengthened with concerted effort and a rightsized spot on a leader’s priority list. An anonymous quote I regularly reference sums it up: “The true essence of a leader is revealed by a person who cares about the opinions and needs of others in ways that transcend position or title.” 

3. Define Your Vision and Empower Others to Execute.

Strong leaders look toward the future and are able to articulate a clear vision that their staff can understand and be energized by. This is especially important for the impact industry where people are mission-driven. Leaders instill confidence by demonstrating competence. And a core competency for any impactful leader should include the capacity to rally a team around a shared strategy, and a strong sense of purpose for the work. 

Once the destination is set, give the talented team you’ve worked so hard to build, the tools and autonomy to map the course. I’ve learned that being in the weeds is being in the way when it comes to effective leadership. A leader must ensure everyone understands and is aligned with the objective, and then empower the team to execute. 

As a leader in the impact industry who thinks regularly about the future we will leave behind, I am motivated to help high-potential, high-performers prepare for prominent leadership positions that will ensure we continue pursuing and securing our intended outcomes. We are striving to strengthen communities. We need strong leaders to recognize the weight of this work and help expand the scope of what is possible.

Sandra M. Moore is managing director and chief impact officer at Advantage Capital, a growth equity firm founded in 1992 with more than $3.8 billion AUM. The firm focuses on high-growth and high-wage businesses investing in communities where access to investment capital has historically been hard to find. 

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