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The 7 Qualities of Great Leaders

Last week, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the world’s foremost scholar of Presidential leadership, spoke at Salesforce. She delineated the qualities that make great leaders, while keeping a room of 1300 raucous salespeople riveted with tales from 19th and 20th Century history. While she drew mostly from examples of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR, see if these qualities translate to business as well.

Here is what I took away:

1. Conquer the self and become stronger through adversity

The most famous example of this is FDR, who was able to become one of the greatest people in history after contracting polio that would cripple him forever. She called this quality “the ability to bounce back in light of joys and sorrows” and “perseverance despite frustration.”

2. Understand the challenges of the era and turn them into opportunities

This is true leadership – not just understanding what is wrong with the world but also finding the path forward for yourself, and for the people (nation, organization) around you. It is the ability to see the way forward and then educate and motivate others to fulfill your vision. Great leaders, she said, are able to “produce miracles” by challenging people to change.

3. Surround yourself with strong, argumentative people who will question & challenge you

While no leader actually enjoys being challenged, the great ones surround themselves with people who will question and challenge them anyway. FDR called these people “a welcome thorn in your side.” Surround yourself not just with people who will challenge you, but who will point out when you were wrong, since “a man who never made a mistake never made anything.”

I believe this is the most important, and most uncommon, leadership quality in business – and probably the one that separates the truly great leaders from the run-of-the-mill executives.

4. Be present with the people you are leading

Teddy Roosevelt spent countless days traveling the country, visiting and greeting normal people all over the country. And during the war effort, FDR would visit factories and troops, “knowing that his presence improves morale and productivity.” While rising status often tempts leaders to recede away from the normal people, great leaders continue to spend as much time with them as possible.

5. Master the skill of storytelling

Great leaders master the art of narrative and are able to communicate a “clear understanding of the difficulties with a sense of confidence.” Teddy Roosevelt made a point of speaking in “language that his Harvard buddies might consider too simple and severe” but connected well with the people and produced numerous famous quotes.

6. Embody integrity & character Integrity & character -- of course, you might say. But how many times do leaders make the wrong choice when there is a trade-off between short-term success and long-term integrity? Ultimately, leaders are always judged by the fiber of their moral being. Don’t ever lose sight of that.

7. Take time to relax & laugh

Great leaders are not pure workaholics. They all prioritized ways to relax, unwind, and enjoy themselves. Lincoln would tell long hilarious stories. Teddy Roosevelt would exercise and take long, intense walks in the woods. FDR had a daily cocktail hour when no one was allowed to talk about the war or politics. If they could take the time to relax and laugh, can’t we all find the time?

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