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Passion, People and Principles

Leadership Qualities

post # 337 — March 23, 2007 — a Managing post

If you don’t subscribe to my (free) articles, then you won’t know that I have just published a new article on my website entitled Selecting A Leader: Do We Know What We Want? (downloadabe in pdf form, as all my articles are.)

The article points out that many of the desired characteristics that firms say they want in a CEO or Managing Partner are inherently contradictory: for example, firms often say they want someone who is both decisive and consultative. It’s tough to be both.

Some other trade-offs include choosing someone who:

  • Focuses on working inside firm versus focuses on a high profile with clients and marketplace
  • Is good with numbers versus good with people
  • Leads in accordance with a strong personal ideology of his or her own, versus is the kind of person who tolerates different views, values and approaches

In the article, I describe a simple approach to debating “forced choices” between a large number of these “paired virtues”, as a way of getting firms to clarify what they really want in a leader.

What contradictory or conflicting things do you see people include when they enumerate the desirable characteristics of a leader?


Sonnie said:

Hi David,

I thought these two may also be conflicting

  • Customer friendly vs. Systems oriented
  • Team player vs. Highly competitive

posted on March 25, 2007

Ellen Weber said:

Thanks for the great insights about leadership, David. You build a good case for the clear expectations we lay out in a rubric so people know what to shoot for.

Would you agree that we tend to lear too much toward what we call HARD or SOFT skills in these expectations — rather than an integration of the two — which uses SMART skills to define effective leaders?

I’d like to see how you and your readers integrate the best of the hard and soft skill traditions here – as a way to respond to the waves of the future? Thoughts?

posted on March 25, 2007

David (Maister) said:

In the latest article, I consciously tried to stay neutral on the requisite skills, because my main point in that piece was that firms need to make very customized choices in their leaders, suited to what journey they are prepared to go on.

My general views on what a great leader needs have been expressed in my articles such as “A Great Coach in Action” and my books PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH and FIRST AMONG EQUALS.

For me, two characteristics stand out among all others: the ability to energize, enthuse and excite others, and a strong, uncompromising commitment to a personal ideology (i.e. integrity.)

posted on March 25, 2007

Steve Roesler said:

This post is as real as it gets, David.

I just finished a CEO selection engagement that included this ultimately conflicting criterion:

“The successful candidate must create meaningful change and be sensitive to the longstanding culture of the company.”

It took less than two weeks to observe that the “meaningful change” trumped the “longstanding culture”; there were too many elements in the culture that required a new direction in order to succeed in the industry.

posted on March 25, 2007

Howie said:

Great insights. Those qualities are really difficult to join. It’s like joining good and evil alike. I always consider both sides before considering. Benefits and trade-offs are important to know whether he/she is the right for the job.

posted on March 27, 2007

Charlie said:

It sure is hard to find leaders with both qualities. We just have to be more specific inorder to supply the needs of the company. I’m sure that by reading your article firms will be able to identify the right person for them to have

posted on March 28, 2007

Abhisek Mukherjee said:

Hi David,

I am just a year old in the professional world and so I have what is perhaps a naive question: Is a “trade-off” or a “compromise” always necessary? Is it always a game of “striking the right balance” between two conflicting traits? Aren’t dualities a reality in individuals?

What I am asking is that in the examples you have mentioned, instead of “Is good with numbers VERSUS good with people.” shouldn’t a leader be “Is good with numbers AND good with people, as required by the issue at hand”?

Is a “forced choice” always unavoidable?

posted on April 3, 2007

Mikeal Rolson said:

Thanks David for the information.

One of our managers looked at this page and said: Oh my God! Now we can be sure in identifying the right person for our firm!

Thanks from our firm.

posted on May 16, 2007

Phil Dourado said:

Hmmm…I’m with Abhisek Mukherjee on this one. Though he describes himself as a newbie and asks ‘perhaps a naive question’ – why does it have to be either/or – I have to agree with him. My feeling is that most of the old either/or dichotomies, complete with forced choices, have to give way to ANDS. Really great leaders have to do both, in all of the supposed mutually exclusive categories mentioned above, at different times. That’s why it’s so hard to find really great leaders today. You have to ride a constantly changing context to be a great leader in today’s fast-changing markets. That demands a whole lot of ANDS and moving away from EITHER/ORS. Naive thinking often hits it right on the button.

posted on May 30, 2007

Cary King said:

Creating and keeping clients through consistent, superior client satisfaction does not seem to be congruent with “tolerating different views, values and approaches.”

How does one reconcile constantly changing views, values and approaches against the need for consistent, superior client satisfaction? It the standards aren’t set with assent from the group, with recognition for achieving the standards, and when egregious, when NOT achieving the standards, then what do standards of quality really mean?

Standards evolve, but it seems that some level of predictability is necessary to maintain membership within the group.

posted on June 12, 2007

Bhanumathi Chandran said:


I do tend to agree with Abhisek Mukherjee and Phil Dourado on shooting for an AND approach. However, this could prove to be an idealistic approach as this might or might not be possible based on the situation. The frameworks of EQ and Situational Leadership dictate the fact that every situation – and sometimes, similar situations – will need different decision making approaches. Playing a consultative role is definitely the way to go and this will give you a pulsing of the audience (both employees and management), their state of readiness and mind set. Ultimately, whichever way one is headed – EITHER/OR or AND – decisions will need to be made to be an effective leader.

posted on July 8, 2007