2 Personality Traits Every Boss Needs

The last two weeks have been among the most difficult in my life. I've watched several business leaders make bad decisions that likely will plunge their companies into decades of decline.

Wrestling with these personal disappointments, I've listened to my 87-year-old father's advice and reread books on leadership and psychology. As I write this blog post, my desk is covered with books, including Drucker's The Effective Executive, Bennis' On Becoming a Leader and Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, all marked by dozens of post-it notes.
Here's what I've gathered from this reading: there are two qualities that leaders must have, be they presidents of nations, CEOs, or informal influencers of others. There's no crime in not having these qualities, but it is an ethical lapse to not develop them, once their absence is made apparent.

The failure to develop and demonstrate these qualities should be a deal-killer to someone's promotion, and if you work at an organization run by leaders who lack these qualities, that should be a sign it's time to move on.

1. Intellectual curiosity: People associate leadership with bold action, but most bad decisions come down to one simple fact: you've made a bold decision before having all the facts. Curiosity includes getting to the bottom of what's going on, why it happened, and what the underlying causes are.

Curiosity implies a desire to learn. As Warren Bennis says, great leaders are "conceptualists." They dig into big ideas and see how they apply. Without curiosity, leaders make decisions based on politics and expediency.

Curiosity includes a love of listening. My colleague Mark Goulston, a leadership expert and psychiatrist, wrote a book that is perfectly titled: Just Listen. (The book is available from the American Management Association as a free ebook.) Many of the worst leaders I know don't listen, don't like to listen, and hide in their offices talking to a small circle of people who think like they do.

Companies that lack curiosity don't see the need for change coming until it's too late. Circuit City, Sears, and Blockbuster come to mind.

2. Courage to stand by values: The--say it with me--"Weiner affair" shows us what happens when people act on impulses rather than values. Courage goes far beyond avoiding moral lapses. It means finding a set of principles that the leader will use to make decisions, so that no one doubts where they stand. Courage is what gives leaders the intestinal fortitude to make decisions that will draw fire from nay-sayers.

Companies that lack courage strike people as spineless or lacking a conscience. The list includes not only Enron and WorldCom, but also Whirlpool, Kmart, and Nokia. In all three cases the companies failed to take bold actions that could have redefined their markets.

Leaders lack the resolve to stop doing something unethical, or don't venture out in bold new directions.

Reading Warren Bennis reminded me that change has no constituents. A courageous decision will result in critics shooting spit wads of cynicism and sarcasm. The leader must demonstrate curiosity to fully understand the situation, and then courage to make the best decisions for everyone. If the leader caves into criticisms prematurely, then the nay-sayers start running the place. Vision is discarded and mediocrity is the future.

Curiosity and courage have a tension between them, and neither is an end in itself. Too much curiosity and the leader is weak and indecisive. Too much courage and the leader is brazen and thoughtless.

Of course this leaves us with two questions: how can you develop these qualities? And what is the effect if one quality, or both, are underdeveloped in the leaders where you work?

Rather than point out a few steps from all these books around me, let me ask you. How have you developed curiosity and courage? And if leaders around you lack these qualities, what is the result-for you, others, and the organization?

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Photo courtesy US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan, CC 2.0.