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Traits of inspiring leadership

In the leadership development work I do with mid- to high-level professionals, we begin by focusing on how to help each individual lead his or her own personal life in more positive and enlivening ways. You can’t lead anything well (including others, projects, growth, or organizational behavior) if you’re not honest, brave, emotionally self-aware and mentally healthy. After all, you’re a person when you show up to your professional life — your personal and professional behavior, thoughts, wounds, biases, gaps and mindsets are inextricably linked.

Over the years, I’ve conducted qualitative research on what positive, inspiring leadership looks like (and what it is not).  Sadly, over the past several years, we’ve seen an increase of examples of negative and destructive leadership and communication that has palpable results – it leads to a dramatic expansion of fear, hate, recrimination, divisiveness, blame and anxiety.  Those outcomes are the opposite of what enlightened leadership generates.

How do positive influencers and leaders make a meaningful difference to the people and endeavors they touch?

I’ve seen that there are seven critical traits of positive, life-affirming leadership that uplifts rather than destroys. And you can begin cultivating these in your own life today.

These are seven key traits are:

  1. They are clear about the challenges ahead, but they inspire faith, hope and collaboration, not fear.

As we all know, life today is increasingly complex and fraught with challenge, as is business. To succeed, we need a strong, cohesive vision for a better future, and we need the support of others. Positive leaders don’t focus on those challenges in negative ways, by dividing people or stoking fear and anxiety. They find within these challenges rays of light and kernels of hope to focus on. They offer to us a beautiful vision of growth and hope for the future that most everyone can get behind.  And they encourage us to work together towards those visions, for the good of all of us, not just ourselves. Collaboration, openness and respect are key.

  1. Blame is not in their rhetoric – they never stoop to recrimination or demeaning, belittling language.

Uplifting leaders don’t blame or attack others – ever. They take full responsibility for what they are shaping and creating, and remain accountable for what happens in their organizations and in their lives, no matter how challenging that is to do.  For that to occur, they are open to seeing and learning from their missteps and misdeeds.  Blame and recrimination, and using biting, demeaning language to cut down other people, runs counter to inspiring leadership.

  1. Their self-esteem is strong enough to take constructive criticism and critique, and in fact, they welcome it.

Most of us can tell in a minute when we’re in the presence of someone who is insecure and has a fragile ego. How can we tell? It’s exhausting for us. They need constant validation, they get fiercely defensive when they are not agreed with, and they don’t know how to build on other’s ideas without trying to take all the credit.

Positive, uplifting leaders are the opposite. Their emotional “well” is full – they don’t need continual validation of their worth and their “rightness.” When someone criticizes them, they don’t immediately go to the angry place – they remain quiet, calm and open. And finally, they don’t covet all the attention and credit for great ideas and successful initiatives.  They’re thrilled and appreciative that others in their leadership sphere have contributed in important ways that supported growth.

  1. Their communication style is positive, with words that inspire greatness and growth in us.

The words that leaders (and all of us) choose to share are extremely revealing about their inner mindset and the way in which they operate in the world, and how much good they believe exists in that world.  As we know, words can be used as weapons or they can be tools for growth. Take the time today to read an inspiring speech of a great leader such as Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt, and you’ll find words that generate so much positive emotion, uplifting us with a compelling vision of a better, more loving, free world that we want to create.

  1. They don’t surround themselves only with people who “yes” them – they surround themselves with diversity, truth and openness.

Years ago in my corporate life, I met one “leader” who, wherever he was hired as a senior executive to turn around the company, he brought with him a posse of the same several men to support him. Sadly, this posse turned out to be a group of sycophants who, in return for being paid very well and getting treated with tremendous favors, did this person’s bidding, never saying “no” or questioning him.

True leaders don’t only surround themselves with people who will never challenge them. They want to immerse themselves within a diverse group of individuals who will share their unique perspectives, experiences,  and know-how.  And that diversity will inevitably lead to differing opinions and views – that’s the whole point. If all you want is to be “yessed” and agreed with, you can’t lead effectively.

The success that they long for is success and opportunity for all – not just one faction, group, or organization.

Empowering leaders don’t speak about certain groups, organizations or people as “better” than others, or more deserving of success than others. They don’t talk about “winning” over others (winning is for the soccer field, not leadership). Those types of judgments and competitive frameworks backfire – instead of generating motivation, they give rise to division, negativity, fear and doubt. Why? Because most of us don’t want to be “better” than others – we want to be happy and successful and hope that others will thrive right there beside us.

On the other hand, inspiring leaders focus on sharing uplifting visions and exciting desired outcomes that will naturally uplift everyone involved. The key goal is to grow and thrive, not to stomp on the heads and shoulders of others in order to ascend the ladder of success.

They operate at all times with integrity, truthfulness and transparency, even when that’s excruciatingly difficult to do.

Finally, great leaders who build up rather than destroy demonstrate integrity and honesty at all times. They never fabricate, lie, distort, or exaggerate. They understand that, as leaders, they have the moral responsibility to speak truth (not just their own version of truth, but verifiable, measurable truth) with valid, supporting facts and trusted information from reliable sources that tell a true story, even when that story is very hard to share.

In the end, enlivening leaders inspire great trust from us because we know that we can rely on them to be strong and honest in the face of adversity. And we’re confident that they will lead us to something better, from a place of clarity, integrity and forthrightness, not for their own gain, but for the good of all.

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