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The Ultimate Leadership Top Ten List

3d render of top ten chart on white background
We’re good at making lists. Any time spent on one of the Internet search engine home pages will reveal at least one “Top Ten This”  or “15 Things That” of one kind or another, every day. Recently, looking for information on the topic of leadership, I ran across several enumerated lists of various leadership attributes. There were so many to choose from that I set about to find what I’m calling “The Ultimate Leadership Top Ten List”: ten lists containing from ten down to the one single most important attribute that every leader should have. I’ll countdown through the lists, paraphrasing the authors and adding my own commentary here and there. Links to each article as well as links to relevant previous MRSC Insight blog posts are included so you can explore further.

10 Traits of Courageous Leaders

According to Susan Tardanico, writing in Forbes, organizations can be destroyed from the inside by fear and such debilitating fears can be conquered through its leaders exhibiting the following traits.
  • Confront reality – Face the facts head on. Problems won’t improve by “treating them with ignorance,” as my Dad used to say.
  • Seek feedback – Everyone has a blind spot (or two) and gaining the perspectives of others can be a big help.
  • Say what needs to be said – Generally it doesn’t do any good to sugar-coat the truth even if it’s unpleasant.
  • Encourage push-back – Take a lesson from Alan Mulally at the Ford Motor Company. Under his leadership, employees are encouraged to bring problems forward rather than try to cover them up.
  • Take action on performance issues – Be decisive with non-performers. People will see that you mean business.
  • Communicate – Be open and free with information. Nothing feeds a rumor mill more than a lack of information.
  • Lead change – Fearful people “hunker down.” Get out in front and lead the charge over the top toward your vision.
  • Make decisions – Avoid the “Paralysis of Analysis.”
  • Give credit – “A good leader takes more than their fair share of the blame and less than their fair share of the credit.” There’s an old adage about how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.
  • Hold people (and self) accountable – Accountability begins with you.

9 Things Great Leaders Say Every Day 

Bill Murphy, Jr., writing for Inc., says your words are among your most important tools, and there are certain consistent messages you need to communicate consistently.
  • This is the situation. – People need to know what’s going on around them. Without the truth they’ll make it up.
  •  Here is the plan – A leader’s job is to lead, but if you’re doing it right, you will get lots of input too. In the final analysis, you need to communicate where you’re going.
  • What do you need? – Your people need to know that you are tuned in to what they need to get the job done for you. In his book Extreme Government Makeover, Ken Miller describes how improvements in the systems that streamline workflow result in happier employees delivering “better, faster, cheaper” public services.
  • Tell me more – Be open to the people on your team. “Shut up and listen!”
  • Remember our values – Encourage the internalization of the values of the organization so they become second nature.
  • I trust you – This is foundational. Without it you’ll go nowhere. You get back what you give.
  • You can count on me – Your people need to know you’re there for them
  • We can do better – Know when to push harder and when to admit mistakes.
  • Let's celebrate – Everyone needs some recognition. The reward for hard work shouldn’t just be more work. It can be as simple as a “thank you” or as big as a celebration party with a bonus. Everyone responds to acknowledgement for a job well done.

8 Ways to be a Courageous Leader

In Inc., Steve Tobak quotes Sir Winston Churchill (according to Nordby family lore, a distant cousin and one of my “go to” guys for courageous leadership!) “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Tobak outlines these eight ways you too can be a great leader.
  • Follow your gut – The co-founders of Google spent years trying to get investors interested in their idea for a dedicated online search company. Perseverance paid off.
  • Take risks – This is easier said than done in the public sector, but innovations have to start somewhere. Of course we’re not talking about putting public funds at risk here, but the idea is that doing the right thing takes courage.
  • Deliver bad news – Most problems don’t go away with time. This is true whether you’re in the public or private sector. The sooner you acknowledge them, the sooner you can get to work on them.
  • Face your critics – Not all criticism is destructive. It takes courage and humility to accept what others have to say.
  • Act on your beliefs – You can’t fully commit to something you don’t believe in. Sometimes this means you may have to make a painful decision to leave a position or accept criticism.
  • Take on competitors – This may be more apropos for the private sector, but public leaders must recognize that even a public agency is competing for people’s attention and perceived value for the taxes or fees they pay. Don’t be afraid to challenge stereotypes.
  • Look in the mirror – Reflect honestly on yourself and all your strengths and weaknesses. You can only build on strengths and correct weaknesses if you know what they are.
  • Challenge your comfort zone – People have fears. Recent extensive coverage of the anniversary of the Normandy D-Day landings has featured many interviews with veterans. Virtually all have said they were afraid and that anyone who says they weren’t was not telling the truth or crazy. Acting in the face of fear is exhibiting courage.

As the authors try to reduce the essentials into fewer and fewer categories you begin to see combinations of traits. Choose the best for yourself. I think you’ll find that there are simply no shortcuts to great leadership.

7 Personality Traits of a Great Leader 
On the Success. com website, author Jim Rohn takes a “this not that” approach to describing the personality of great leaders.

6 Qualities of Leadership 
Brian Tracy, author of numerous books and articles on leadership and management, writes in this guest article in the McGraw Hill Business Blog that more than 50 important leadership qualities have been identified, but that there are six qualities that seem to stand out as being more important than the others.

5 Key Traits of Great Leaders 
This article by Patty Vogan from the online publication Entrepreneur describes five traits believed to be common to all great leaders.

The 4 Leadership Skills You Need Most
In this article from the Treer Group, the authors begin with a study that surveyed 2,200 leaders and 15 organizations in order to assess the quality of leadership skills in executive and management ranks. They identified the four most important leadership skills identified by the study as the place to start.

The three top skills every leader should have
In The Globe and Mail, author Richard Lorenzen describes three skills every leader should possess.

What are the two most important functions of a leader?
In this piece the author, Dan Black, describes two functions of leadership which I would argue cannot be accomplished without the leadership qualities described by the other authors as an intrinsic part of the great leader’s fundamental character.

And now what you’ve all been anticipating as you’ve read through all these opinions about leadership and wondered what could possibly be the single most important attribute…

The No. 1 Leadership Trait You Really Need to be Successful


Are you surprised?

Mark Toth writes: “Leaders who are truly (1) servant-hearted; (2) able to put others and the organization first; and, (3) willing to listen with humility to other points of view are the ones that people will follow.”

Leaders with humility are secure and self confident but respect the value of others.

No better example comes to mind than Nelson Mandela.

I began this for fun to see if I could find a series of ever shorter lists of easy-to-reference attributes, but the process revealed some essential truths about leadership. There were many commonly cited attributes of great leaders in the articles I found. Beginning with the initial top ten it’s pretty easy to come up with a list, but as the writers attempted to reduce the traits to the most essential, words like vision, integrity, and humility cropped up more frequently as key words or in a supporting role as the lists got shorter. I hope you can use this as a mirror to hold up to reflect your leadership style. Great leaders are all around us.

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Photo of Lynn Nordby

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.