5 Leadership Traits to Level Up Your Career Growth as a Manager

By Brett Henley on June 1, 2015

A recent Gallup report found that an alarmingly low (10 percent) of managers have the necessary leadership traits to be effective.

According to the report, effective managers share five traits: "They motivate their employees, assert themselves to overcome obstacles, create a culture of accountability, build trusting relationships, and make informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and company."

While I agree wholeheartedly with the above sentiment, I digress from the idea that the root of this management disconnect lies in our hiring practices.

While this is certainly a catalyst, I believe that serious deficiencies in self-awareness, proper support systems, and opportunities to learn and cultivate these positive traits contribute far more to our inability to develop effective managers.

Why the "Bad Boss" Syndrome Deserves More Attention

Sadly—despite a growing creative economy, conscious consumerism, and the business world evolving at breakneck speed—we're still light-years behind on developing a positive leadership culture in the workforce.

I remember watching a CEO stand in front of over 100 people, only a few hours after major layoffs sent a host of people packing, state with little remorse that he "really didn't care what we thought about the firings."

I've had bosses so inept at managing expectations that our creative team would dread new project meetings as we waited for the albatross of scope to swoop in and poop on our heads.

I've seen jealous undermining and territory marking to protect job security turn really, really ugly.

The common thread? There's a sheer lack of self-awareness, which could otherwise help even the worst managers align with the leadership principles and, over time, improve.

The 5 Guiding Principles of Effective LeadershipThe 5 Guiding Principles of Effective Leadership

My experiences managing creative and sales teams taught me two important lessons about being an effective manager:

  1. Have clear processes for setting and managing expectations, delivering on expectations, and making tough, unbiased decisions when things don't work out as planned.
  2. Communicate respectfully when things fall apart.

Looking back, I can see now that our successes and failures as managers were less about those processes being effective out the gate as they were the result of how we collaborated on managing the processes (and how we communicated with teams when things went well or went south).

As I contemplate my experiences as both a leader and a creative, I've arrived at a set of 5 guiding principles that I believe can help anyone become an effective manager:

  1. An effective manager is an effective communicator.
  2. An effective manager leads with compassion and understanding, humility, and grace.
  3. An effective manager creates a culture of "us" by empowering her/his team with the right processes and tools to encourage healthy collaboration and communication (without demanding it).
  4. An effective manager is also accountable for her/his part in any success or failure the team experiences.
  5. An effective manager knows when to take the reins and make tough decisions, and when to allow her/his team to shine.

Obviously, these principles are not tangible skill sets that you can learn from reading a leadership book, article, or otherwise. They have to be learned by doing to a point where they become ingrained.

How to Get Aligned with These Leadership Principles

Let me preface this by saying this process will not work without the self-awareness to recognize that these leadership traits are lacking—either in yourself or your current management team.

With that in mind, here's a simple breakdown of how I would get aligned with these principles, and how you can immediately start applying them:

Principle 1: Effective Communication

This is not the cookie-cutter notion that "it's all about communication," but the very real process of learning how to become a better listener who can also effectively communicate expectations.

Action step: Schedule a quick, daily scrum meeting with your team first thing each morning—10 minutes max. I'm borrowing this from the Agile development model, but I've found it quite useful in encouraging constructive communication and for setting daily expectations.

Gather everyone in a room and ask each person to briefly share what s/he's working on today, what her/his challenges are, and how her/his team—including management—can help her/him overcome these challenges.

Principle 2: Lead with Compassion

To lead effectively, you have to care about how your team members are feeling—not just what they're doing. Leading with compassion requires a strong sense of selflessness and the ability to pull "me" out of the equation.

Action step: Make a point to stop by every day and have a quick chat with each person who reports directly to you (even 5 minutes counts). Ask how they're doing, what their challenges are, and what they need from you to be successful today. Listen to their feedback, but refrain from any immediate criticism or response. Simply make them feel heard, and then take some time to reflect before you respond.

Principle 3: Create a Culture of Collaboration

Collaboration has no place in your mission statement. What you need is to empower your team with the processes and tools that create the opportunity for collaboration. The rest is up to them. Your job is to guide the process, and know when to get out of the way.

Action step: Devote a block of hours to develop and implement these processes with your team. Collaboration needs buy-in to work. You earn that buy-in by including your team in the process of deciding what collaboration looks like in your company, not by dictating it.

Principle 4: Accountability

Truly effective leadership comes with a very important caveat: You have to get your hands dirty and be willing to take responsibility for your part in the successes or failures of your team. All ships float or sink together.

Action step: Starting now, set clear roles and responsibilities at the outset of every project. Everyone on your team, including you, should have a specific role to ensure the project moves toward the defined goals. Fold in daily accountability check-ins with your team and assign someone else to do the same for you. If you want to hold people to higher standards, they need to see that you're willing to hold yourself to the same.

Principle 5: Making the Tough Decisions

The first key to making tough, unbiased decisions is to be willing to see your smaller decisions as experiments, not dead ends. The second key is knowing when to let go and trust your team to make the right choices. Ineffective managers exert control in most situations. Effective managers understand when to step away and allow their people to do their job.

Action Step: Give yourself clear parameters regarding how long you can spend contemplating decisions before committing and passing the baton to your team. For example, you can give yourself a defined time limit in which to do research and write down any roadblocks (and potential solutions) before making a final decision.

Developing Positive Leadership Traits Won't Happen Quickly

Developing these principles and a process to get aligned with them won't make you (or your leadership team) more effective overnight.

There is no fix-all remedy for the root of the "bad boss" problem, just as you can't force company culture to change by demanding it so. Like any major shift in work culture, you have to take full ownership over your part in the disconnect and lead the charge by example.

I want to hear from you on what it takes to develop positive leadership traits: Tell me about your "bad boss" experiences in the comments below and share what you think it takes to be an effective leader and manager.

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Brett Henley

Brett Henley is a writer, storyteller and content strategist with a diverse background in copywriting, content marketing, information architecture, digital marketing and more, and has partnered with organizations from a wide range of industries, both B2B and B2C, to help them tell their stories more effectively. Brett writes both fiction and nonfiction and is passionate about exploring the intersection of creativity and self awareness, intentional business and storytelling. He also hosts The Mindful Creator - a podcast exploring self awareness and mindset development for creative entrepreneurs.