Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, individuals like Socrates, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca aspired to lead virtuous lives by following the four ideals of:
Today, these same four qualities still represent the ideal characteristics of a great business leader. Alas, such great business leaders, such virtuous men and women, are as rare today as they were in the time of the Parthenon and the Coliseum.
An effective leader has the wisdom to make the right decisions and to do the right things for the success of the company, be it pursuing the best strategy or choosing the right people to lead or be a part of the organisation.
Wisdom is more than just information, data, and knowledge; it is the insight, vision, and business acumen that allows a leader to see through the fog of their daily reality and understand what drives the success of the business. Such wisdom is gained by experience, study, and thinking. Most significantly, it is gained by thinking and critically examining previous actions and experiences.
The most effective leaders do not just rely on their own wisdom; they share and rely on the wisdom of everyone on their team as well as the wisdom of mentors and role models.
Effective leaders are governed by justice and fair dealing. They do the right thing and lead ethical companies with integrity and honesty.
Justice requires that the leader treat subordinates and all team members and stakeholders with dignity and respect, even, as my colleague Howard Perlstein writes, in the midst of gut-wrenching change. As such, a just leader has the empathy to see the effects of his and her actions on other people and adjust appropriately.
Self-control is synonymous with moderation.
In business today, self-control is vital: we have so many inputs (data, news, E-Mails, Internet, mobile phones) coming at us 24 / 7 / 365; we have so many seemingly critical priorities; and we have so many opportunities to take action.
As such, self-control is essential to not do everything that we can do. Instead, we need to focus on the few important fundamentals, limiting ourselves to doing only what we should do for the success of the business. Yes, it is difficult and painful to prioritise and not do something.
Further, self-control is needed to suppress the ego of all of us as leaders. In fact, Marshall Goldsmith’s excellent book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, is all about self-control and eliminating and/or reducing the negative, defeating and excessive leadership behaviours that characterise so many of today’s leaders.
Courage is a word with many different connotations. To most of us, it would be exemplified by the tremendous bravery of young men and women fighting overseas for their country or by police officers or firefighters.
For business leaders, courage is not quite so noble. Yet, it may even be more difficult to achieve.
Great business leaders must have the courage to make the right decisions and do the right, tough and difficult thing every single day:
- To stand up to analysts clamoring for short-term numbers and instead deliver on long-term success
- To confront and terminate the “bully” manager who always makes his numbers but demeans his employees
- To embrace head-on necessary conflicts
- To embark upon a new, unproven (even unpopular) venture or strategy.
In short, the courage required by great business leaders is to take risks, go against the grain, and feel uncomfortable every day in order to do what is best and right to advance their business forward.