A couple of years ago a guy I knew got fired from his role as a CEO of small public company. In the end the directors grew tired of his excuses for the company’s under-performance and the lack of a clear plan for the future. They also accused him of lacking the behavioural traits of an effective leader. At the time this was humiliating for him. Two years later he has bounced back strongly and now admits that the directors were right. His new business is flourishing and he puts it down to the lessons he learnt in his previous role. He freely admits he was not a good leader but is now making rapid forward progress in that regard.

Recently he asked me for my view of “what great leaders do” and this is what I told him. The list I came up with was surprisingly short (only 5 items), remarkably “simple” but extremely difficult to execute every day over long periods of time. By the way, my colleague now scores very highly! Ok, here goes:

Great leaders show up a lot

They’re very visible in their businesses. They are approachable and connect easily with people at all levels. They are curious about everything – people, events, problems, new developments, opportunities etc.  They get close to their people and the business. They are not afraid to get their hands dirty and will do whatever job they need to do when they need to do it.

They have a vision that they can execute

They get people (staff, suppliers, customers and investors) to believe in their (clear, consistent) vision and how important their contributions are to achieving it. Essentially, they inspire people to be part of a fun, adventurous, worthwhile journey. More than that, however, is that they know how to execute the vision.

They take personal responsibility

They don’t blame external events (e.g. “it was the market’s fault, not mine”), or other people, for things that go wrong. They aim to eliminate excuses and concentrate on the things that they can control. They spend their time on what is important – setting priorities, measuring progress and rewarding performance.

They deal in facts, prepare well and take educated risks

They relentlessly pursue the truth no matter where it leads. They realise that without fact-based information their decision making ability will be impaired. They play out the future before it happens. They rehearse for meetings (any meeting) and show up ready. They run worst-case and “what-if” scenarios regularly. They understand that the world is changing rapidly and they must constantly reinvent their business’ place in it. They know that “they can’t win them all” but prefer to take educated risks to give the best chance of success. They hate surprises and work hard to avoid them at all costs. When they uncover opportunities, risks or problems, they do something about them.

They focus on building a great team

They communicate frequently, share important data (scary, huh…) and set a great personal example. They are focused on building a great team that is accountable and engaged. They do lots of performance reviews, including peer to peer, and stay focused on performance. They know that genuine feedback is a good thing, no matter how personal it may be. They set the example by insisting that the team reviews the leader’s performance first – this sets the standard for the process. They provide and seek honest feedback and act on it immediately. They are genuine and consistent in their praise or criticism and expect their team to operate the same way.

They make sure that their people understand exactly what is expected of them. They aim to stretch them, but not break them. They try to keep things interesting for everybody. They work closely with them to model what is acceptable behaviour and outline the consequences for non-performance. They are fair and are empathetic but expect high performance and reward it generously.

Tough list. How did you score?