The attributes of a great leader

They say it’s lonely at the top, but leaders aren’t often alone. In fact, some of the best leaders recognize that they are one piece of a larger puzzle.

I am often asked about the attributes of a good leader and it’s not always an easy question to answer. There are certain attributes that are key — honesty, integrity, accountability and empathy come to mind. But many times you don’t know what attribute is most important until you need it.

This article comes from the February/March issue of AACC’s Community College Journal.

I have said before that I truly cherish watching the upward mobility of the many amazing leaders I have had the benefit of mentoring over the years. Seeing someone become a community college president and being even a small part of someone’s leadership journey is an amazing feeling. But, once at the top, how do you lead an executive team and ensure that the necessary attributes are available when you need them?

I confess that I have been known to read often about the topic of leadership and will bring forth ideas and strategies that I feel may help us reach the goals we are trying to achieve. Not unlike the leadership experts that are featured at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual convention, I believe that refreshing our notions of leadership and introducing new ways of thinking and doing into any team can be beneficial. As a leader of leaders, it is incumbent upon you to effectively communicate a vision and mission that is compatible with your institutional strategic planning. It is also your responsibility to provide the leaders on your team with the tools necessary to reach those goals.

Here are some of the behaviors that I find useful.

  • Acknowledge extraordinary effort. Even just a short comment or note showing that you noticed and appreciated a person or team that went the extra mile is one of the most important and empowering things you can do for a team.
  • Praise excellence. Openly and publicly praise the team and its leaders for excellent work and efforts. Let them know that the quality of their work is prized and respected.
  • Applaud failure. Your team needs to know that they can try different approaches and theories as they work to attain goals. Sometimes they will fail and that’s where the learning takes place. If they feel there is a safety net, they will be willing to take risks which may be rewarded with positive, lasting change. When they learn and grow and ultimately accomplish the goal, hopefully it is better executed because they learned from what didn’t work.

Critical to all of these behaviors is the need to continue to move forward. Whether for yourself, your leadership team or your college in general, it is important to balance the praise with continued forward motion toward institutional progress. If we start to believe our own good press, then there is a risk of resting on our laurels and that is a risk that likely won’t be rewarded.

Register today for the AACC annual convention April 28 to May 1 in Dallas.

About the Author

Walter G. Bumphus
is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.