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Leader to Leader: Most Essential Leadership Qualities

Our new Leader to Leader segment surveys our community of Australian business leaders on the most pressing issues facing them today. We recently asked, What is one characteristic every leader should possess?

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Our new Leader to Leader segment surveys our community of Australian business leaders to share the collective intelligence on the most pressing issues facing leaders today. As part of this series, we recently reached out to our community of business leaders and asked them:

What is one characteristic every leader should possess?

The results came from leaders of all backgrounds, experience levels and from a wide variety of industries, and ranged from single word responses to detailed anecdotes, key lessons and cautionary tales.

The Results

  • 17% of respondents stated that empathy is the one characteristic every leader should possess, making it the top answer across all platforms.
  • Humility came in at a close second, a requirement for just over 15% of those surveyed.
  • Self-awareness and an ability to listen were each listed by 7% of those who responded.

A member of our community, Frances Quinn, explained why being open to the perspectives of others is a key leadership quality:

Every leader should have a deep fascination in the perspectives of others. Without this, they will fail to understand their team, build relationships and provide effective leadership.

Don’t Force it...

Humility, a key characteristic for 15% of respondents, is a key component of strong and effective leadership according to many experts, while coercive measures and hubris have the opposite effect. Turning the Flywheel author Jim Collins has spent his career thinking and writing about what makes the best companies tick, and has warned that leadership can’t be held by force:

The best and most innovative work comes only from true commitments freely made between people in a spirit of partnership, not from bosses telling people what to do. Leadership cannot be assigned or bestowed by power or structure; you are a leader if and only if people follow your leadership when they have the freedom not to.

Results Continued

Other popular responses included integrity, curiosity and vulnerability, accounting for almost 20% of the results.

Brené Brown, TEDx speaker, author and star of a recent Netflix special, The Call to Courage, has espoused the benefits of brave leadership and examined the power of vulnerability throughout her research and writing. For Brown, vulnerability can be summarised in three words:

  • Uncertainty
  • Risk
  • Emotional exposure

An appetite for leaders exhibiting vulnerability and self-awareness suggests that the best leaders have an ability to look inward and self-assess, prior to offering their critique of others.

Be Kind

An emphasis on emotional intelligence was common among the responses, which included self-improvement, passion, authenticity and kindness.

This focus on kindness was articulated by one of our community members, TEDx speaker and author Claire Ashman:

For me kindness should lead first, then everything else follows, like resilience, curiosity etc. I find people lack a lot of kindness. A leader who leads with kindness is automatically empathetic, understanding and curious...A kind leader is more likely to make a lasting impact on their followers and ultimately, the world.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Other business leaders noted humour as a key characteristic of a good leader, echoing Liz Wiseman’s assertion that ‘a great sense of humour’ is a common trait of what she calls a Multiplier, a leader able to inspire and bring out the best in others. Trust was another repeated answer, unsurprising perhaps to author Marcus Buckingham who knows what a team without it looks like:

Upon examining the most engaged teams, we were able to determine that the biggest driver of engagement was whether or not teams trusted their team leader. Members of teams that have extreme trust for their team leader are 12 times more likely to be fully engaged. Across countries, industries, and positions, a trusted team leader is the foundation for building highly engaged teams.

Lessons Learned

We asked our community of business leaders to share with us the characteristic that every leader should possess, but what can be learned from the results?

The primary takeaway must surely be that all leaders and teams are different, and therefore require a nuanced and considered leadership style. But while the adage, different strokes for different folks may apply, the modern leader must embody a set of key qualities regardless of industry, location, team dynamics and the size of the business.

Empathy, humility, the ability to look inward, vulnerability and self-awareness are all markers of leader committed to self-improvement and feedback, unafraid to harness their team members’ strengths, ideas, skills and expertise. The number one tool for this process? An ability to communicate, both by expressing oneself and by listening to others. The final word goes to Sir Richard Branson, business magnate, author, philanthropist but above all, leader:

Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess.

After an energetic and lively performance by the String Sirens, mains were served before a sponsor presentation by T20 World Cup 2020 CEO, Nick Hockley.

Blazing a trail for women in sports, he asked guests to imagine 90,000 people watching the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup on International Women’s Day. Inda Nooyi, recently appointed as the ICC’s first female Independent Director, grew up a keen cricketer, learning many lessons about leadership, teamwork and cooperation that she would draw on throughout her professional life.

The Immigrant Mentality

In a conversation that covered a myriad of topics, family life, gender and the Immigrant Mentality were focal points, with the latter something she maintains to this day.

I don’t think I’m an exception. Most immigrants...have a fear that things may not work out...interestingly, it’s never gone, even today...40 years later.

She described the fear that things could be taken away at any time, and the embarrassment of having to answer to her failures to those in her birth country. Despite her success, the fear remains.  

The Power of Legacy

The conversation moved to CEO succession as a process, both Indra Nooyi’s own move into the role of CEO of PepsiCo, as well as her transition out of the company. Describing the effective system used by PepsiCo, Indra and her team identified 10-15 people of different ages who could ‘go all the way.’ Over the course of up to four years, she created opportunities for the board to see each of them in action, along with extensive documentation on each one.

A comment that surprised many of guests, was not that the process of succession was taken seriously, but the extent to which Nooyi invested in her own:

I was more worried about my legacy than I was about my performance as a CEO.


An Evening with Indra Nooyi

Mega Trends

The big moves made by Nooyi during her 12 year tenure at PepsiCo are widely known, but for her they were never ‘gigantic decisions.’ She advised the audience to do what she did as CEO, which was to identify the mega trends of her industry, and determine what moves had to be made to address them.

This process is not about intuition or experience, but rather about getting all the facts.

You’d be surprised how many of those trends you’re ignoring or not addressing.

She went on to share several anecdotes, though the common theme was clear:

Just because you’re a CEO, doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of getting the details.

The Good and the Bad

Dealing with controversy is nothing new for Nooyi, something she touched on in reference to PepsiCo’s infamous Live for Now advertisement. Although focus groups suggested otherwise, the backlash was both quick and severe. Nooyi ultimately viewed the experience as a learning opportunity:

At the end of the day, we all learn from these sobering experiences.

Gender and Bias

Questions from the audience led to a discussion about balancing family/work life, and the difficulties women and minorities face in the workplace.

Inside many companies, we have to address this issue of conscious and unconscious strip those people, you slowly strip them of their confidence, and when you strip them of their confidence, you strip away their competence.

She went on to share some inspiring words with the audience, the magnitude of which was felt by the men and women in the room, alike:

...All these labels are what people give you, not necessarily what you are...The fact is, there’s a job to be done, and I believe I’m the best person to do it.

An Evening with Indra Nooyi

After the Q and A dessert was served, a decadent selection which included an affogato station, before a partner address from Dave Woodall, EGM, Corporate and Regional Growth of Sunsuper.

While the food was in abundance and the drinks seemed to flow endlessly, it was hard not to feel stimulated by the animated conversations, rich music and overwhelmingly, the sage words and hard-learned lessons shared by the guest of honour, Indra Nooyi. Her experience is unlike any other, and spending a night in her company was likewise a unique and special occasion for all those who attended.

Thank you to everyone who attended An Evening with Indra Nooyi, ICC T20 World Cup 2020, Sunsuper, and all of our other event partners.

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