3 Traits of Effective Leaders That Will Shatter Your Stereotypes

June 13, 2017

Close your eyes. Now picture the perfect hire for a leadership position. Imagine how they’d act, make decisions, manage a team—and how you’d spot those qualities as a recruiter.

Your imaginary hire is probably confident, charismatic, and visionary, with a strong record and soaring recommendations.

Of course, you already know that there’s no single mold for leaders: they come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Sure, you’re not searching for a stereotype, but you might not know what (non-obvious) traits you should be looking for.

If you’re trying to broaden your horizons, battle your biases, and recruit an overlooked, underrated leader, look no further. Here are three counterintuitive qualities of candidates that can be effective leaders.

1. Humility: Humble leaders encourage collaboration, recognize their faults, and embrace new ideas

No one needs to tell you to pass on a wildly overconfident, super cocky candidate. But it’s easy to assume a great leader needs to be self-assured, assertive, aggressive—maybe even a little arrogant. Good leaders can fit that mold, but they don’t need to conform to it. Instead, you might want to take a second look at self-effacing candidates who show humility.

According to Margarita Mayo, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior writing in the Harvard Business Review, “when we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us becomes a better place.” Mayo cites research showing that humble CEOs make the most of their team’s talent: they establish collaborative cultures, appreciate others’ strengths, recognize their own weaknesses, listen closely to new ideas and feedback—and inspire the same productivity and humility in their employees.

But Mayo also points that we tend to overvalue charismatic leaders—and the dangers of doing so. People have a tendency to romanticize leaders and seek those overflowing with charisma—even if those leaders are also highly narcissistic and less effective. Like humble leaders, research shows that narcissistic leaders also influence their teams, inciting an ultra-competitive atmosphere of self-centered “organizational narcissism.”

In short: while we naturally tend to err on the side of overconfident leaders, we’d be a lot better off erring on the side of humble ones. When it comes to leadership, think more Malala, less Don Draper.

2. Introversion: Introverts make up more than half of all top-performing CEOs

There’s a big difference between what people think makes a good leader and what qualities actually predict strong performance.

That’s according to a massive,10-year study of over 17,000 C-suite execs, which found that a slim majority of CEOs who overperformed were introverts. Obviously, that’s not to say only introverts are good CEOs—almost half of the top performers were extroverts—but it is surprising and cuts against common misconceptions.

Let’s also be clear about what introversion is and isn’t: Susan Cain writes in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking that “The word introvert is not a synonym for hermit or misanthrope… Nor are introverts necessarily shy. Shyness is the fear of social disapproval… while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.” Introverts “often work more slowly and deliberately,” Cain says—not a bad quality for leaders who often need to make weighty, high-impact decisions.

While extroverts can seem better suited as leaders, the data doesn’t bear that out—introverts are just as effective. Elena Lytkina Botelho, co-founder of the research project cited above, told the Washington Post that “some of the things that make CEOs attractive to the board have no bearing on their performance.”

She goes on to suggest that extroverts might just be better at interviewing: “Like most human beings, [the boards] get seduced by charismatic, polished presenters. They simply do better in interviews.”

That’s a lesson recruiters can take to heart—a good interview doesn’t always mean a good hire, let alone a good leader.

3. Predictability: Predictable, consistent leaders give their teams peace of mind and the freedom to act within clear boundaries

Being predictable isn’t inherently sexy or exciting—but a good leader doesn’t need to be an action hero, they just need to drive a successful team.

That’s what Google found when they conducted a massive data analysis of hiring and leadership performance. The one quality that stood out among effective leaders wasn’t dynamism, spontaneity, or charisma: it was predictability and consistency. That’s boring, sure—but not bad. Just the opposite.

Speaking about that research to the New York Times, Google’s Senior VP of People Operations Laszlo Bock said: “We found that, for leaders, it’s important that people know you are consistent and fair in how you think about making decisions and that there’s an element of predictability. If a leader is consistent, people on their teams experience tremendous freedom, because then they know that within certain parameters, they can do whatever they want.”

In other words, instead of thinking of leaders as a top-down power generator that needs to electrify a team, think of leaders as an orchestra conductor who provides a consistent foundation, keeping the team on track so everyone else can focus on doing what they do best.

Great leaders don’t necessarily need to inspire, they just need to set clear boundaries that allow others to find their own stride and flourish. Leadership isn’t about power trickling down from the top—it’s about giving others the freedom to find that power within themselves.

Again, this isn’t to say that the best leaders are exclusively meek, mild-mannered, and reserved. You already knew that many of the most effective leaders are supremely confident social powerhouses who never cease to amaze—but there are just as many who aren’t, and that’s the key to remember when recruiting for leadership positions.

*Image from Gladiator

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