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The Actuary Magazine

What makes true leaders unique is what they do. While some leaders have official leadership roles in an organization, anybody at any level can be a leader by performing certain actions that exhibit true leadership. But due to many of the “leadership” programs that focus more on developing management skills, these five key skills of true leadership have been lost over time.

Skill 1: Articulate a Compelling Vision

A leader is someone who can verbally communicate a vision in a way that is compelling, persuasive and inspirational. This requires an individual to possess (or develop) the speaking skills needed to communicate the vision effectively to any individual, team or large audience.

This doesn’t mean the leader needs to formulate the vision—often this comes from the board or others with higher authority. However, the leader is the one who communicates the vision, so others are moved, inspired and really get it. It’s also vital that the leader knows how to translate this vision and apply it to any person on their team, at any level of the organization, so everyone knows what it means for them specifically.

Skill 2: Awaken and Sustain Desire in the Hearts of Others

“A leader is a leader not because of who he or she is, but because of who others become when in the leader’s presence.”
—T. Falcon Napier

A true leader does more than express how the mission will benefit the company. They also will emphasize what accomplishing it will do for the employee. Leaders are experts at answering their followers’ question: “What’s in it for me?”

Let me give you an example from my own experience. I once worked for a company that had quarterly “state of the union” meetings. They were totally depressing. They only involved management above a certain level, we met in the cafeteria, and the topics usually consisted of how we needed to cut more expenses and downsize.

The next company for which I worked also had quarterly breakfast meetings. In contrast to my previous company, these were held off-site because every employee was invited. I had no idea what to expect when I attended my first meeting. As I entered the hotel, I heard the song “Eye of the Tiger” blaring down the hallway. I followed the music into the ballroom and saw people giving each other high fives, eating breakfast together—having fun! This was our meeting.

The CEO presented our results, gave special recognition to individuals, let us know all the ways we would grow and benefit, and made each one of us feel that we were part of something awesome. This skill set is not limited to how it applies to employees. It also applies to vendors, media, shareholders, customers—everyone who hears the message.

Skill 3: Create and Maintain a Feeling of Pride in Others

Pride is the fuel that drives the human enterprise. In contrast, shame is the disease that destroys it. True leaders need to create, monitor and manage an environment of pride in the culture. It needs to become part of an organization’s DNA.

The best way to measure your culture is to observe others’ reactions when something goes wrong. Is there finger-pointing, anger, blaming, excuse-making and gossiping? Or is there rallying, learning, encouragement, owning the mistake, extension of grace, constructive problem-solving and lifting each other to a higher place? The first reactions are the symptoms of a shame-based culture, while the second list is what you might find in a pride-based one.

I made a bad mistake once on a job and felt horrible about it. I was sure my boss would be very angry with me (and rightfully so). When I saw him, he said, “My pencil has an eraser.” I felt a great sense of relief and was motivated to do better going forward.

Skill 4: Focus Others on a Clearly Defined Destination

A leader is focused on what the ultimate outcome should be. How we get there is in the domain of management. The manager figures out all the mechanics of how it will get done: scheduling, resources, logistics and so on. The leader’s job is to keep everyone focused on what exactly is to be achieved. When distractions come, the leader needs to realign the focus back on the destination.

Skill 5: Identify and Develop More True Leaders

True leaders never try to hold people back from their full potential. They are never threatened by someone else, even if that person may be or become a more effective leader! They understand the only way to grow is to find and develop more leaders. They do this by noticing someone who is naturally doing any of the four other skills mentioned, even if it is just a glimmer of potential. The leader makes sure these people have the mentoring and resources they need to develop into true leaders. By producing more true leaders, the organization thrives.

Take a moment to examine and assess yourself and others in your organization against these five key skills. Then make a conscious decision to cultivate these skills more fully, make a plan and pursue it diligently.

David C. Miller, FSA, MS, PCC, is president of Leadership Growth Strategies.

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