Top-notch leaders share three essential traits. Two of these traits are well understood, common targets of conscious improvement,
and the topic of numerous articles published daily. The third is another matter entirely. It is not well understood and is rarely discussed in helpful, instructive ways. That’s too bad because it offers the single greatest opportunity to improve results and productivity.
How you treat people matters. It matters a lot. Top-notch leaders know this. And while the Internet is filled with advice about how to treat employees, it all boils down to one word: Respect.
If you respect your employees, you:
- Treat them as partners who have something important to contribute. Because they do. If they don’t, you recognize the mismatch between position and employee. You don’t judge them. You help them find a better match. Because you know you are doing no one a favor by keeping them in a position where they can’t succeed.
- Listen. Carefully. Because their expertise, perspectives and positions differ from yours. You can learn from them.
- Don’t make assumptions about their invisible characteristics such as ambition, talent and attitude. Instead, you focus on their observable behavior and its impact. And you help them develop the awareness, skills and habits that will amplify their ability to be more effective.
- Respond with compassion, honesty and pragmatic assistance. Not power or condescension or dread.
That’s it in a nutshell for respect. Top-notch leaders are respectful and encourage it in others.
A second trait of top-notch leaders is self-awareness. Great leaders know that self-awareness is essential to their effectiveness. They weren’t born on a special planet. They haven’t always been models of self-discipline and productivity. They haven’t always been satisfied or proud of how they’ve handled every situation. They’ve made their share of mistakes. They’ve lost their tempers and said stupid things.
But one thing they have in common is constant attention to their own behavior and its impact. Top-notch leaders study themselves and the people around them to see themselves through the eyes of others and learn why they do what they do, what works and what doesn’t, how to control their least productive instincts, and how to better handle every situation.
How you manage yourself matters just as much as how you manage others. Top-notch leaders know this well and many are also quite good at developing self-awareness in others.
And, once again, there is plenty of literature on this subject for those eager to improve.
The third trait of top-notch leaders is clarity. Top-notch leaders have excellent clarity. They are clear about their purpose, priorities and next steps. They collect information, weigh risks and make decisions quickly. They understand their people’s capabilities and assign and align responsibilities remarkably well.
But here is the rub. While great leaders have excellent clarity, they can’t fathom why others don’t. And it frustrates them greatly.
Furthermore, when it comes to creating clarity, they are unconsciously competent. In other words, they do it, but don’t really know how they do it. Thus, they can’t teach it effectively. And they can’t understand why their otherwise highly capable employees don’t just “get it.”
One reason is because creating clarity involves cognitive processes. Cognitive processes move ideas and decisions. Most people don’t even think in terms of processes when they think about ideas and decisions. To most people, processes only describe the movement of physical objects.
For example, if you ask people to demonstrate and explain the process of tying a shoe or baking brownies, most could easily walk you through a fairly simple list of concrete steps. Many would even teach some special vocabulary to clarify the process. Things like “bunny ears” and “greasing the pan.” Not only would the explanations be pretty clear and accurate, they would be quite consistent from person to person. And if two people collaborated on a response, they would have no trouble clarifying the process together because of their underlying familiarity with the steps and a shared vocabulary.
Now ask the same people to demonstrate and explain the process of making a decision. I guarantee you won’t get crisp explanations or consistency despite the fact that they all make decisions far, far more often than they tie shoes or bake brownies!
While clarity is an essential trait of top-notch leaders, this is the trait where even excellent leaders most need to improve. Imagine how much more effective they, and their staffs, would be if they could move ideas and decisions as easily as a they tie their shoes. Imagine having a shared vocabulary and clarity of process for a multitude of daily activities that aren’t even thought of as processes.
The greatest opportunity to improve corporate productivity resides in clarity. Great leaders have it. If only they knew how to share it!
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on March 6th, 2016.