great leaders

Five Things Great Leaders Do Right

To state the obvious: Great leadership is vital to any organization. Great leaders set the direction for the organization and determine resource allocation to get it done. They create the tone by how they lead and make decisions. They nurture and enable a culture to thrive. And to do their jobs well, they must be deeply committed to the business and to empowering their people to succeed.

Over the years, I have learned there are many great leaders out there who work hard to do the right thing and have the best intentions to do right by their business and their people. Yet, a recent study by Kelton research shows us that less than 50 percent of employees view this as the truth. This begs the question: Why aren’t employees’ perceptions matching up with leaders’ intentions?

If you’re concerned that your people don’t have confidence in you as a leader or that the perception of the leadership team doesn’t match your efforts, you may need to reassess things. The best leaders always learn to fine-tune their game. Below are five qualities I have found exhibited by successful leaders, all of which are critical actions and behaviors that help leaders be more authentic and create greater confidence and followership.

Why aren’t employees’ perceptions matching up with leaders’ intentions?

1. Great Leaders are storytellers

The best leaders have the ability to paint a compelling vision for their people by defining what winning looks like in a powerful, understandable way. They connect with people’s hearts as much as with their heads. They aren’t following a PowerPoint presentation at a town hall meeting; rather, they are speaking passionately, without jargon or business catchphrases, in a way that inspires and motivates their people.

2. Great Leaders are dot connectors

Successful leaders create a common view of where the business is, where it needs to go, and how it’s going to get there. They provide clarity at all levels so individuals have a well-defined idea of how their personal goals fit into the big picture.

3. Great Leaders keep important conversations in the room

By creating an environment built on trust, honesty, and safety, leaders make it okay for the meaningful conversations to happen “in the room”  rather than the bathroom, hallway or water cooler. When people trust their thoughts will be heard in the right way and feel safe that their careers won’t be limited by a new or different idea, they’ll speak more openly. Strong leaders welcome “against the grain” thinking and the resulting debates – that’s when the best ideas come out.

4. Great Leaders are transparent about decision-making

When leaders do it right, they don’t have the need to make all the decisions, but create an environment for healthy debate and are upfront with everyone about who is accountable and who will be making the decisions on particular issues. Consensus is an important and powerful concept for certain occasions, but expectations around aligning behind a decision and being clear on how decisions are made often define the speed and effectiveness at which leadership teams can move.

 Strong leaders welcome “against the grain” thinking and the resulting debates – that’s when the best ideas come out.

5. Great Leaders motivate people to own the whole

The best leaders foster communication that occurs across the business units of an organization, not just from the top down and bottom up. This often requires leading through influence, rather than authority, as things need to get accomplished outside of people’s full sphere of control. When leaders visibly drive those efforts, it models into the organization the desired matrix behaviors that avoid siloes, turf wars or having “your team” rather than the best teams work on a critical project.

6. Great Leaders aren’t Perfect

Leaders don’t have all the answers. So, if you feel stuck in a leadership rut, here are a few quick ways to reenergize your leadership skills:

  • Take your business hat off and define a compelling future that’s told in layman’s speak. Test it on your family, friends, and even your neighbors. If their eyes glaze over, then it’s time to do a compelling “gut shake” and try again.
  • Check your calendar. Are you spending more time working in the business versus on the business? Remember, your job as a member of the leadership team is not on the front line – that’s why you’ve hired great people.
  • Test your leadership team’s alignment with the trusty “napkin sketch” exercise. Simply give each leader a napkin and ask them to sketch the vision for the company. Do the drawings match up? Within minutes you’ll see if you have a shared vision or not.
  • Finally, look at your own actions. Are you truly exhibiting and modeling the behaviors that you need others to embody in order to get your business where it needs to go?

Over the last two decades, I’ve seen some great leaders and some not so great leaders. The difference between good and great is often a slim margin. Some of the very best are embodying the five qualities listed above; we can all learn something from them.



Rich Berens is president and Chief Client Fanatic of Root Inc. For over a decade, Rich has helped leaders at Fortune 1000 organizations to align on key strategic imperatives and engage their people in bringing their strategies to life. His clients span all industries and include PETCO, Bank of America, Hilton Hotels, Procter & Gamble, Deutsche Bank, and Merillat/Masco, among many others. Rich is a noted speaker on the issues of strategy and change and has authored articles for Chief Learning Officer magazine. Rich joined Root in 1997 after completing his MBA at the University of Michigan. He worked for Commerzbank in Germany and has lived abroad, both in Germany and Nigeria. He holds a BA/BS degree from the University of Washington in St. Louis. Rich lives in Ann Arbor with his family, and treasures time with his wife, Anne, and daughters, Katarina and Mia.

  • Excellent post, I especially like the points on transparency, keeping conversations in the room and owning the whole. I would add that leaders must show they are competent and they care. They must be the model for making and meeting commitments in a very competent way. That focus on competence and execution can’t overshadow the need to show you care – the frustrations, fears, concerns, family issues & milestones, etc. for every team member matters..

  • Sounds great, Rich. But – no one can motivate another person, only demotivate them. The leadership industry has been handing out your advice for a long time and the long term gains simply aren’t there as consistently shown by Gallup engagement surveys. Makes me wonder when the industry will study what followers follow and why they react the way they do to what management does and does not do. When it does, it will learn exactly what leadership is and what actions are right, which are wrong, and why.

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