The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “What’s the key to great leadership?” is written by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.
A lot has been written about leadership. Business executives, sports figures, consultants, coaches—people from lots of different walks of life—like to talk about the qualities and characteristics that engender great leadership. Sometimes this commentary becomes repetitive and mundane, so you have to dig a lot deeper to find the real key to truly great leadership.
When I think about leadership, I often remember something I read many years ago in a book written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of the well-known book, The Little Prince: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” In other words, great leadership rests on the ability to encourage people to dream and push for boundless goals.
Sure, putting the right processes in place to meet goals and creating tactical programs to make an organization work are vital elements to leadership, but they are only “table-setters” for leaders today. Great leaders hunger for what’s next and kindle curiosity for ground-breaking innovation.
While many criticized Apple’s (AAPL) Steve Jobs for his rough, impatient personality, he epitomized a great leader. He had a particular gift for imagining things that people desired before they even realized they needed them. Jobs’ passion, intensity, and extreme emotionalism were at the heart of the amazing company he built, the extraordinary results he got, and the exceptional people he attracted to work there.
Jobs also took great gambles, which real leaders must do. Risk is uncomfortable and generates uncertainty. But, when leaders push the boundaries and encourage dreams, they embolden others to stretch and take risks, too. And only when you take risks can you build momentum. After all, progress usually isn’t linear. There are bumps along the way. Leaders need to be transparent and give people feedback in real time, even though it may mean losing employees when there are setbacks.
Those setbacks often lead to finger-pointing, and to that end, leaders need to not only be ready for criticism, but to embrace it. Criticism, like bad news, can be a gift. It can often be a positive spur to action and self-reflection. It’s part of the dynamic environment that forces people to question, be ambitious, dream, think without boundaries, and self-correct. In order to make criticism work for you as a leader, you must constantly keep an eye on culture. Make sure that you encourage people to speak their minds and that you listen to all levels of the organization. Sometimes the person with the most valuable criticism is the youngest and newest member of the team.
So to be a good leader, you need to have all of the building blocks under your belt: a vision of where you want to go, the right team, and the right culture. But to be a great leader, you have to do more than that. You need to take risks to build momentum, embrace criticism, and most importantly, inspire people around you to have a passion for breaking the bounds of what’s possible.