8 Signs of a Mature Leader
Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments, but the best have these things in common
HOW CAN YOU know a mature leader when you see one? The first guess of some might be what I call the “Conventional Model” of a leader: confident, assertive, charismatic, and verbally adept.
That first guess, however, is a fallacy. Effective leaders come in all shapes and sizes, all kinds of personalities. They can be loud or quiet, introverted or extraverted, social or shy. This has been firmly established by history, research, and observation.
Despite their differences, I assert that there are some characteristics all mature leaders share. Try measuring yourself against them.
1. You take time to prepare to lead
A championship basketball coach was asked afterward if he attributed his team’s victory to their “will to win.” He replied, “The most important thing is not the will to win. The most important thing is the will to prepare to win.” In other words, championships are really won on the practice floor, in the weight room, and even in the cafeteria.
The same is true in leadership. A would-be leader who just shows up and wings it throughout the day will not be effective. Leadership requires real-time reasoning and judgment, being “in the moment” when interacting with team members, and the discipline to shape the plans and actions of the present with a vision of the future.
These things require a clear-thinking mind and sufficient energy to meet the challenge at all times. Like an athlete, you must be in shape to perform at your best. That means:
Making space for thinking time
Practicing regular self-maintenance
Thoughtfully planning your schedule
A commitment to life-long learning
2. You arrive at work “on duty”
When you assume a leadership role, you are no longer a private citizen. You represent the company in what you say and do. You should think of yourself as having the name of your company tatooed on your forehead.
I was speaking recently with a family member who is a retired police officer. It was interesting to hear him describe the change in his mindset each day from his “home self” to his “police self.” The moment he walked out the front door in uniform, he was on duty.
The same kind of adjustment should be made by every leader. When you’re at work (even in Zoom World) you should have a similar attitude adjustment. Things you might say or do on your own time are no longer appropriate. Be conscious of where you are.
3. You know the weight of your words and use them thoughtfully
This point flows directly out of the previous one. Many new leaders believe, “Now that I’m the boss, I can say whatever I want.” No, the exact opposite is true. You’ve lost that right because your words “weigh” more. Your attitudes become more contagious than a flu virus, spreading quickly among the team.
On the positive side, this principle lends you one of the greatest powers of leadership, which is the ability to define reality. Abuse this power, however, and you’ll find you’ve lost your credibility, your leadership influence.
As a leader your fears and doubts can spark an attitude pandemic. Your suggestions become orders, your speculations become pronouncements, your possibilities become promises, your criticisms become blows. You have immense power to encourage and motivate, or to discourage and demotivate. Use it wisely!
4. You take initiative and bear responsibility for your decisions
A great historical example of this principle is in the interaction between General George C. Marshall and Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower at the beginning of World War II. Marshall had to grow the military forces more than forty-fold to 8,000,000 men as fast as possible.
One week after the attack, Ike arrived at the War Offices to present himself to his superior. Marshall spent an entire day testing Ike’s thinking and judgment, and decided he was a good choice for the job he had in mind. He said,
“Eisenhower, the Department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. . . . I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.”
There are many who would shrink from the scrutiny and criticism that such initiative could draw. Mature leaders are willing to accept the responsibility that comes with great authority. Courage is a requirement of leadership.
5. You can receive and honestly consider criticism
I can confidently promise you: If you ever seek to lead any group, from a Girl Scouts troop to a giant corporation, you will be criticized. If you’re going to fold up or lash back at critics, you might as well hang it up now.
Mature leaders not only can graciously receive and honestly consider a criticism; they actually welcome it. If the criticism is valid, the person has done you a favor by pointing out something needing improvement. If the criticism is invalid, you can take action to correct a misconception. Either way, you win.
It is absolutely necessary to discipline yourself not to react negatively to a critical message, not even by facial expression, tone of voice, or body language. If you do, they’ll stop bringing you bad news, one of the worst things that can happen to a leader. In leadership, you must have accurate information, so it’s critical to keep lines of communication free and clear.
6. You are resistant to disappointment
You simply are not going to win them all. There’ll be errors of judgment, people who let you down, downturns in market conditions, and competitors who jump ahead. If you give in to disappointment and despondency, you can drag an entire team or company down with you.
This is another reminder of the first principle: preparation. By keeping yourself as strong mentally, emotionally, and physically as possible, you can be more resilient and much better equipped for the battle.
Another avenue to guard against this is by having a thriving support network, both professional and personal, and a life outside of work. These can really help by providing rest, refreshment, advice, and perspective.
7. You are comfortable with productive disagreement
Another helpful historical example: Just a few months after his Presidential inauguration, John F. Kennedy signed off on a secret CIA operation to work with Cuban counterrevolutionaries to overthrow the Castro regime, known as the Bay of Pigs operation. It was a complete disaster and a huge scandal.
Licking his wounds, JFK invited his predecessor, Eisenhower, to spend some time with him at Camp David to solicit his advice. Remember that they were of different political parties, something that’s rare today.
In the course of their talks, Ike asked Kennedy an important question: “Did you have everyone in the room to hear and ask questions?” The answer was No. JFK had presided over an echo chamber with people who represented only one point of view.
He learned his lesson. In 1962 Kennedy faced one of the most dangerous challenges ever: The Cuban Missile Crisis. This time he invited many voices to contribute, and he managed through the situation successfully.
Learn from that. You don't want an echo chamber in business either, but the combined intelligence and viewpoints of a team.
8. You accept and work with the realities of human nature
Human beings are imperfect creatures, but that’s all we have to work with. As management guru Peter Drucker said:
"We are not going to breed a new race of supermen. We will have to build our organizations with men as they are."
What does “men as they are” imply? It means that human nature is universal and predictable. We tend to be self-centered and motivated by self-interest. It’s natural to want our own way and be willing to use our intelligence to find a way to get it. It is natural to try to avoid responsibility when we fail to do as we ought.
Lest those points seem too negative, let me hasten to say that most people grow into mature adults. Keep in mind, however, that maturity does not change human nature; it bridles it. Selfish and immature impulses remain in the best of us, and can be expressed if we allow them.
Mature leaders don’t get bent out of shape when they encounter those negatives. They simply persist in leading in the right direction.
These are my eight qualities of mature leaders. What others would you add? Li