It’s easy to point at a poor leader and recognize traits—duplicity, the blame game, slippery ethics, and so much more. But what makes a great leader? Is it full transparency or need-to-know discretion? Chameleon-like ease in any situation? Top-down but surefooted authority, or a fast-and-loose directing style that allows people to excel on their own?
Actually, it’s none of those. The single greatest quality that marks great leaders is an unshakeable moral core. Living their values every day. Everything else, including these four key traits, come from that foundation.
Respect. When a leader holds fast to his or her core values, respect comes naturally. Recent scandals involving workplace harassment—think of Uber, Hollywood, even NPR—are, in a large part, issues of respect. We’re seeing some major careers come to a crashing halt in light of profoundly disrespectful behavior. But the best leaders model mutual respect as part of their decision-making. They include care and understanding as part of their daily behaviors, which in turns inspires their teams, who feel safe, valued, and therefore, loyal.
Loyalty. Speaking of loyalty, Starbuck’s Executive Chairman Howard Schultz penned a searing op-ed for The Financial Times about the problem of leaders not seeing themselves as part of the bigger picture—loyal to humanity and the greater good as well as to their enterprises. He was writing in the aftermath of the divisive attacks in Charlottesville, when the whole country’s moral core was called into question. But the viewpoint applies to endless situations. Loyalty is critical to driving agile decision-making and sustaining good relationships with colleagues and customers. When a leader can stress loyalty throughout the organization, it binds everyone together with an undeniable sense of collective trust which, in turn, drives alignment.
Honesty. For a business leader, honesty is a form of currency, building a foundation of trust and collaboration. It also requires leaders to be confident enough to reveal their own vulnerability, authenticity, and integrity—which means it starts by being honest with themselves. Seasoned executives who have reached professional maturity may come by it naturally; having long ago learned from past experience and embraced their own moral values and beliefs. They teach the next generation how to be strong yet fragile enough to never forget there’s a human element in all of this—and to own decisions and actions. Honesty drives accountability, inspiring others to do the same.
Compassion and empathy. Great leaders can set aside their egos and listen with sincerity, humility, and empathy—whether it’s to colleagues, clients, customers, or their communities. Grounded in their own beliefs, they’re not shaken by opposition, but instead can understand another person’s point of view—and are interested in knowing as much as they can about it. This combination of compassion for others and empathy is an intensely powerful position from which to negotiate. It’s a unifying force, building trust instead of division, and driving collaboration instead of factionalism. And as the Dalai Lama noted, “Compassion reduces fear, boosts our confidence, and opens us to inner strength. By reducing distrust, it opens us to others and brings us a sense of connections with them and a sense of purpose and meaning in life.”
Leadership that’s grounded in strong core values can make a strategic business decision that combines organizational needs with community benefit—and neither is diminished in the process. And we’re seeing more leaders taking a stand as our moral core is etched into sharper focus. Senators argue for country before party. CEOs insist on innovating for a sustainable future. Board members insist on repairing a toxic workplace not just for the sake of its people, but also for the long-term viability of the organization itself.
We’re at a crossroads, as described by Chairman Schultz. What’s going to keep us headed in the right direction—toward a strong and vibrant society, as well as a healthy economy—is our moral compass, straight and true, and the values that radiate from its core.