The DNA of a Successful Leader

Posted at 3:43 pm on 11/23/2015


Over the past many years, I have had the privilege of knowing some great leaders who have been bold and visionary, starting with our own company's President, Navroz Saju. Through these leaders and through watching and reading about organizations that have been successful and sustainable, I have developed what I believe to be the DNA of a successful leader. In no particular order of importance, I believe them to be as set forth below.

1. Resilience pays. Every organization that is ambitious will face their fair share of challenges regardless of the character, cash, plan and execution. As the saying goes, life happens and things do not always go as planned. This is when resilience really kicks in. Resilience allows the leader to keep fighting and survive while making adjustments and waiting for the tide to change. Winston Churchill's quote of "Never, never, never give up" epitomizes this.

2. The ship can only have one captain, and that captain must be rich in character. Every organization must have one respected leader who, in the eyes of their team, has earned the right to lead them. Such a leader will provide direction during uncertainty, and the team will believe, embrace and execute on that direction because of their faith in that leader. This faith comes from the leader's work ethic and richness of character. It also comes from the leader being comfortable enough in their own skin to be accepting of diversity and their own internal weaknesses while leveraging off of their strengths.

3. Recruiting, developing and taking risks on people. Ronald Reagan once said you can achieve anything in life provided you are willing to give others credit for that achievement. Any sustainably successful organization has other talented individuals who embrace the organization's culture and leadership. This talent cannot be hired guns, but rather is best developed organically from within the organization and consists of individuals who have been in the organization for a long time. This level of long-tenured talent within the organization allows for a deeper understanding of and belief in an organization's culture. Lastly, this also means taking risks by entrusting people sometimes beyond your comfort level. A leader must deeply believe in this because relationships will sour and the trust will be challenged, but every leader knows that they cannot achieve success on their own.

4. Emphasis on merit and execution. In any plan, nothing counts more than the plan with the most merit bubbling up to the top and the efficient execution of that plan. The leader must create a culture that embraces this.

5. Clear values and deep culture. The organization must have a clear and concise raison d'ĂȘtre that is more than just "making a lot of money." It has to be based on something deeper than money and be at the core of every person that holds a leadership position within the organization. For example, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, said he wanted to build a company so that "man could colonize Mars and sustain the earth."

6. Passion. You have to believe and believe deeply. The journey of any successful leader is marked with times of uncertainty where doubt is prevalent. If the passion is not deeply rooted within the leader, the organization crumbles in the face of challenge and doubt. As Dr. Seuss wrote in The Lorax, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." In order to lead and take on the challenges of leadership, the leader has to care a whole awful lot.

7. Listening. The art of listening is so powerful. The saying is that God gave humankind two ears and one mouth for a reason. The reason simply is that listening and understanding are crucial in building a plan on which the team will execute even when things do not go as planned. It also means when things go awry, listening and understanding help to ensure mistakes are not repeated and adjustments made. And, it means understanding and exercising humility to recognize that no one person has all the right answers. By actively listening, the right plan can eventually be baked with the greatest likelihood of success and buy-in.

8. High emotional IQ. Large organizations deal with diverse people. In this diverse environment, with differing opinions, the leader must balance his/her own passions with that of the group without getting impatient and/or showing a lack of respect to different ideas. In addition, with diversity also comes unique personalities and the challenges associated with managing those personalities. A leader must be accepting of this if he/she wishes to maintain their respect within the organization. Also, with growth comes challenging high pressure situations. It is within these situations that patience, pragmatism, thought and composure balanced with effective and efficient execution are at a premium.

9. Balance and stability. The Greeks had two sayings by which they lived. These were: 1. To thine own self be true; and 2. Nothing to excess. The leader needs to provide organizational balance between work and play as well as balance between work and life outside of work. The leader must make good decisions regarding his/her health (both mental and physical.) This allows the leader the physical and mental ability to survive when the going gets tough and to accelerate during the good times.

10. Constant desire and passion to learn and evolve. This means constantly being a student, whether reading about industry and global trends, or reading novels or networking. This desire results in constant evolution and growth and also allows for the leader to be elastic; bending and stretching with diversity without breaking from the organization's core values.

11. Good fortune. Whether it is the start of the Roman Empire or Apple Computers, each leader at some point has been the beneficiary of good fortune. This can mean having good health, meeting the right person(s) at the right time, finding the right partner and many other things.

Over the last year, I have read several books pertaining to journeys from the Hobbit series to Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Each of the heroes in some ways evolved to represent many, if not all, of the aforementioned as their journey progressed. They showed resilience in the face of peril; they found talent to accompany them during their journey and listened to their counterparts to make adjustments as needed; they believed in the journey itself and were passionate about their cause; and found good fortune when all seemed lost. While the journey can get lonely and a leadership position lonelier, the leader must passionately believe that he/she will find courage in unexpected places and have trusted companions who ultimately trust in his/her character and are willing to execute on the leader's vision.

by: Azim F. Saju, Esq.
HDG Hotels VP & General Counsel

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