Leadership Qualities That Produce Positive Results

and the Conditions Which Promote the Development of These Qualities

by Mary Gorham

A key assumption that all effective leaders share is the belief that they can influence their future. They assume they have the power to shape circumstances, rather than assuming all power is outside of themselves. And assuming this, they create an environment where the people they are working with have this operating assumption as well. They feel they are strong enough and courageous enough to do what is needed, and take collective action based on this assumption.

In addition, leaders who make a positive difference tend to have a deep sense of caring for life in general, for the part of the world they know best, and for the people they work with. While they tend to be smart and have highly relevant experience, knowledge, and technical skills, what is equally important is that their head and heart are strongly aligned and connected. They lead from their hearts and connect to other people’s hearts.

Four Core Capacities

Building on this foundation, research shows that the best leaders also tend to have a combination of self-awareness, authenticity, good relationship skills, an understanding of systems, and an ability to achieve results. So the question is, if these qualities are so important, and we keep peeling back the onion, what are the core capacities that, in turn, make it possible for a leader to exhibit these qualities? Research on emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence point to four key areas:

First, powerful leaders have a strong sense of their identity, what matters to them, their values, and what they stand for. As William Stafford reminds us in his poem, “The Way It Is”, they have a deep knowing of the thread that doesn’t change in them as the people and events around themselves change. They know themselves, what their life purpose is, and what they are here for. They understand that their worldview is one among many worldviews. They have an ability to see the “lenses” they are looking through, as well as the experiences and assumptions that have helped construct those lenses.

Second, they know that part of their being human is that their core self which voices their sense of calling will always be challenged by their gremlin, i.e. that particular voice in their head that will never think they are good enough, smart enough, prepared enough (etc.) for the challenges they face. They have developed skills for courageously listening to their core self, and for living from their purpose and values, rather than succumbing to their fears. They also know how to manage their emotions when they are challenged by others, even when the going gets tough. They stay aligned with the ebb and flow of life.

Third, effective leaders have a systems view of the world that builds on a fundamental respect for our essential interconnectedness. They know that they always can only see “a part of the elephant” both because of their worldview, as well as the limitations of “where they are sitting”. Because of this, they actively seek out those whose perspectives are different from their own, and have developed good listening skills so they can fully take in these differing perspectives.

Fourth, in seeking to be in service of a cause bigger than themselves, they call others to join them in an orientation of “servant leadership”. They are clear about their stake, and know that what matters most is not themselves, but that which they aim to serve. And so they organize around their purpose, and manage in ways that affirm that which gives a sense of aliveness. They seek to be wise, compassionate, and effective teachers, knowing that an essential role for all leaders is to grow other leaders. They are authentic, they grow effective relationships, and they are a calming, healing presence as they make the changes that they and their colleagues have joined together to make.

How to Develop These Capacities

So if these are the qualities that tend to be at the root of effective and authentic leadership, what are the conditions that tend to help us develop these qualities most effectively? What is the soil that these roots thrive in and how can we best tend to that soil?

I believe there are three basic conditions for the kind of profound learning at this “root level” that leads to transformative development in our leadership:

  1. First, as leaders, we tend to develop in sustainable ways when we are part of a strong community of supportive fellow learners with whom we engage in rich dialogues over a period of time. When we feel connected, rather than alone, our sense of possibility expands exponentially. And when the cohort of like-minded leaders is at the same level in an organization, the conditions for learning are ideal, since no authority dynamics are at play. Given the depth of the discussions, participants tend to develop close bonds with each other, which in turn, helps them immensely in their normal work as they seek to further the organization’s mission together.
  2. Second, when we consider multiple paradigms, models, and perspectives on leading and working with other members of a cohort, we create the opportunity to challenge our habitual ways of thinking and doing. Having done so, we then need to test out our new paradigms and assumptions in our own lives, and see what results we get. When our results improve, our motivation to adopt new patterns of thinking increases, and we reinforce new patterns of leading and working.
  3. Finally, we need a safe, confidential way to reflect regularly with someone we trust about our own experiences, assumptions, places of vulnerability, and areas where we seek to develop. We need support and accountability to examine the linkage between our thoughts and our results, so we can powerfully create what we most want.

Leadership development programs that provide all three of these forms of support create a container for deep, transformative learning. With a combination of group work and 1-on-1 work, large group discussions and small group discussions, the possibilities are many. By starting with the organization’s overall mission and strategy, and building a leadership development program with these dimensions into the strategy so the organization has the human capacity to meet its strategic needs, organizations can increase the speed and probability of their success many times over.

Your Next Step

If you would like to discuss your own organization’s growth strategy and how leadership development might fit into it, please contact me at (203) 389-7343 or mary@marygorham.com