The best business leaders often have many qualities in common, from open communication and transparency to empathy and a commitment to diversity and inclusion.
1. Respond to a Crisis with Care
In times of crisis, the best business leaders can find ways to shine. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic threw the world into a crisis, California State University (CSU) Chancellor Timothy P. White postponed his retirement so the institution could move forward without further disruption. Two CSU campus presidents followed White’s great leadership example by postponing their retirements as well.
While many colleges pushed to return to campuses in Fall 2020, White moved CSU to a virtual environment. He explained in a statement that the health, welfare and safety of students, staff and faculty was the main consideration and that the “virtual planning approach preserve[d] as many options for as many students as possible.” He put the students' success and wellbeing before profits.
2. Be Transparent
The best business leaders strive for transparency to foster a positive culture. Transparency not only builds trust with employees but can also help solve bigger problems.
For social media management company Buffer, “radical transparency” is one of its core values. In 2013, the company published every employee’s salary, including executives, and made its salary formulas public, helping to improve company diversity.
3. Listen to Understand the Consumer
Great leaders go the extra mile to make their customers happy. Costco is known for customer satisfaction being a main priority. Based on interviews with 35,685 customers, the American Customer Satisfaction Index ranked Costco as the top general merchandise retailer in 2023, and it wasn't the first time.
A leader can become stronger by learning new techniques and following examples set by successful leaders.
Costco CEO Craig Jelinek has shown he’s a good listener since becoming CEO in 2012. For example, he's refused to raise the price of the popular Costco deli hot dog. The price for the hot dog and a soda combo remains at $1.50 since it was first introduced nearly four decades ago.
4. Show Empathy and Support
According to a 2021 survey, 90% of respondents believed empathetic leadership creates higher job satisfaction, while 79% felt it reduces employee turnover. Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi believed compassion and empathy were among the most important qualities of great leadership.
“No matter how smart your strategy, success or failure usually comes down to one thing: the team," Nooyi wrote when she left the company in 2018. "In everything you do, find teammates who can help execute your vision and empower them to succeed.”
5. Foster Honest and Open Dialogue
Warby Parker disrupted the prescription eyewear industry by launching an online store that offered more affordable options. The company met its annual goals within three months of its 2010 launch and had a waiting list of 20,000 customers. By its 2021 public market debut, it was valued at $6 billion.
Co-founder and CEO Neil Blumenthal attributed part of the company’s success to its focus on providing feedback and having direct conversations.
6. Manage Conflict with Courage
Part of great leadership is having the courage to drive change when something goes wrong. That’s one of the best leadership lessons from General Motors CEO Maria Barra. Only a few days after she took the helm, the company was faced with an ignition switch malfunction that had caused many deaths and injuries. Barra publicly acknowledged the mistake, launched an in-depth investigation, and fired 15 employees, including senior leaders, who were responsible.
The conflict drove her to transform the company’s culture, one in which employees often feared speaking up. One of Barra's initiatives was a new safety hotline where employees could report concerns quickly.
7. Cultivate an Inclusive Culture
One of the many responsibilities of leaders is to make sure the company’s culture aligns with its vision and values. That’s what Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall set out to do when she was hired as the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks in 2018. The team was in the middle of a sexual harassment scandal. Marshall’s goal was to revamp the company culture in 100 days. Among her many changes was a new code of conduct and a zero-tolerance policy.
But Marshall didn’t stop there. After learning the Mavericks didn’t have any women or people of color in senior leadership, she spearheaded a variety of initiatives to ensure better representation. The franchise leadership now has 50% women and 50% black, indigenous and people of color, earning the NBA’s 2022 Inclusion Leadership Award. Marshall’s leadership advice may be best summed up by her “three Ls” of leadership she shared on a Slate podcast: “Listen to the people, learn from the people, and love the people.”
A leader can become stronger by learning effective leadership techniques, and following examples set by successful leaders is a great place to start.
A version of this article was originally published on February 24, 2010.
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