What Makes a Great Leader? Master These 8 Imperatives

View orignal publication and access the full report on Korn Ferry Institute

An airline customer debacle causes social media outrage that raises questions about the firm’s CEO leadership. Missteps or misreads by political leaders create new fears of military actions. And then there are the leadership decisions that don’t make headlines, which take place in companies and governments across the globe.

But even as decisions by leaders large and small come under close scrutiny, there’s a broad consensus about what lessons an organization can teach—or how individuals can train themselves—to become better at the job. A new Korn Ferry report highlights eight leadership development imperatives, such as embracing new experiences and optimizing stress, that can help improve one’s ability to manage teams, think strategically, and inspire others. These eight principles aren’t new, but it’s critical to practice all of them systematically, consistently, and in combination with one another, says Sarah Hezlett, senior assessment scientist at Korn Ferry and co-author of a new report on leadership imperatives. “Deliberate use of the eight imperatives will keep leaders from defaulting back to old approaches, habits, and routines that are not serving them effectively,” she says.

Three of the imperatives focus on actions; they’re visible to everyone. Embracing new experiences and learning from others can increase someone’s personal skill set, while being deliberate and reflective can help those skills seep in. Together, these three are the “what we do” imperatives. Three other imperatives deal with characteristics that aren’t always visible to outsiders. Great leaders must foster a growth mind-set, allowing themselves to be open to new ideas and, sometimes, let go of things that were once valued. At the same time, leaders must learn to leverage emotions—both their teammates’ and their own—recognizing and understanding how emotions can be used to motivate. Optimizing stress is also a key leadership imperative. Stress, of course, moves someone out of a comfort zone, but it also can challenge someone to come up with new and innovative ways to solve problems.

However, according to the report, leadership development is about more than mastering new skills and behaviors. Humans automatically view new experiences through the lens of their own values, assumptions and beliefs. That “automaticity” can be beneficial, but it can also hijack someone’s ability to be agile and respond effectively in different environments. The last two imperatives—practicing mindfulness and enacting behavioral commitments—can help pause automaticity, creating space for leaders to make changes. Mindfulness is a person’s ability to view oneself objectively, while a behavioral commitment involves backing up a resolution with an actual action. It’s the difference between a leader who wants to stop micromanaging subordinates and one who backs up that resolution by asking subordinates: “What actions can you take to achieve what needs to be done?” That behavioral commitment not only yields positive results but also cuts down on the initial urge to micromanage.

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