A Survey of 5,000 CEOs Reveals What Makes a Great Leader

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Why you should care

Because even great leaders have weaknesses.

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Ask Katherine Graham-Leviss for the recipe for creating great innovative leaders and she’ll tell you that it takes a heap of risk-taking, lots of curiosity and a tendency to seize opportunities. But what’s not as well-known is the missing ingredient that many believe is essential for cooking up success:

The best leaders tend to lag behind when it comes to maintaining order and accuracy.

“They are big-picture thinkers, they’re visionaries, but they’re not very good with the details,” explains Graham-Leviss, the founder of XBInsight, a Portsmouth, Rhode Island–based business consulting firm.

Along with her colleagues, Graham-Leviss conducted a study of more than 5,000 leaders across multiple industries. They found the most innovative leaders tend to be risk-takers who are also adept at developing plans early on to minimize the potentially negative consequences that may follow. In other words, these leaders will make a bet and roll the dice, while also looking for strategic ways to hedge that bet. They demonstrate an underlying curiosity and desire to know more, leading with confidence and authority. As business consultant Lisa Lai says, the best leaders are “intentional” — they have clarity on what they stand for and are thoughtful about how they want to engage others at work and at home.

Yet at the same time, cautions Graham-Leviss, great leaders “tend to be less concerned, focused [on] or care about the process.” As a result, she and other experts suggest, it’s important that leaders build and keep the right team alongside them, including individuals in supportive business roles who excel at keeping life organized and accurate. Along these lines, innovative leaders with specific social styles are more likely to be successful. Those with a “driving” social style — which means they’re assertive, independent and driven when it comes to responding to problems — and those with an “impacting” social style (i.e., they excel at interacting with and influencing others) have an easier time reaching greatness than those with “supporting” or “contemplating” social styles, the XBInsight report noted.

It’s a tricky balance to strike, given the push many leaders are feeling to be more collaborative these days. Greg Satell, author of the forthcoming Mapping Innovation, says that being a great leader comes down to a tendency to seek out new problems and find ways to solve them — and an ability to create a collaborative culture. “The worst thing you can do as a leader to is be constantly shooting down ideas,” Satell says. Collaboration is a critical component, he argues, especially since “leaders often find out that they had just a small part in the process.”

Indeed, that process of identifying problems and then turning to the right team members can make all of the difference between a ho-hum leader and a great one. The trick is not to worry about who has the “gift of leadership,” says Tamara Carleton, CEO and founder of the Silicon Valley–based business consulting group Innovation Leadership Board. “Great leaders help create other leaders around them. They create a shared culture of leadership, where everyone around them feels that they can take responsibility and ownership in the vision.”

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