Long gone is the concept of ideal leader as autocratic, unapproachable One. While wisdom, grit and a willingness to take action still matter, they’ve been surpassed by less individualized traits (and what are often called “soft skills”): participative management, relationship building, change management.
Clearly, a successful leader can no longer operate as a commanding, invisible voice—one who delivers edicts but stays aloof behind a curtain. (One article at fortune.com advocates that the strongest leader we meet in The Wizard of Oz is not the elusive wizard at all but actually Toto, the terrier—because he listened, got people’s attention when necessary and took leaps of courage.)
Here are some qualities that we at Journey Group deem crucial to effective leadership. We may not have a wizard, but we think we have our share of brains, heart, courage and vision.
Great leaders offer hope. Life is full of challenges, and we are drawn to those people who announce, “I have an idea. I know the way. We can do it.” We want to follow those we trust who, even in daunting situations, are convinced there’s a solution and are committed to finding it. Better still if they bring a sense of humor along for the ride.
Great leaders listen and adapt. Leaders don’t need to be the loudest people in the room. Often, they’re the ones subtly guiding conversations and projects. But they know how to listen to their colleagues and both applaud and promote the best ideas. Their listening skills help them think on their feet and change course when an idea fails, a contract falls through or the office alarm system is triggered at midnight by a bat. In these times, great leaders accept accountability for the failure and double-down on their commitment to their people. They seek council and wisdom from every possible source to get it right the next time.
Great leaders have vision but empower others to “own” the plan. Not that leaders aren’t interested in the day-to-day, nitty-gritty stuff. But they trust their people to bring innovative ideas to the table too—however different from their own—and then to run with them. A great leader is able to celebrate another’s ownership of a shared vision.
Great leaders stay the course. If a goal is worth pursuing, then leaders will stay in pursuit, despite confusing circumstances or criticism. They have already counted the cost for their vision to be realized, and now they lean into whatever change is necessary. This calls for a Superman cape, and we love a superhero. (Just ask us about our affinity for Batman.)
Great leaders are willing to be uncomfortable. That means undertaking necessary risks, but it also means engaging in—rather than avoiding—difficult conversations. Inevitably, mistakes happen. Sometimes it’s the leader who needs to own the responsibility. Other times, that leader needs to engage an employee in an honest appraisal (not in an email, please): “Here’s where you’re contributing. Thank you. And here’s where you’re facing some challenges. How can this be changed? How have I contributed to the problem? How can I help?”*
Great leaders are good leaders. All of the above adds up to the fact that the best leaders are good people too. Not that you can’t courageously conquer and succeed while having the ethics and emotional intelligence of a gnat, but we don’t think you’ll have followers for long that way. (Or, as history pans out, that you’ll be remembered all that fondly.) As the old truism goes: If no one is following you, you are not a leader.
Here at Journey, our relatively flat organizational structure means that everyone’s a leader, because each team member has something to contribute. At times, our “reporting” roles flip-flop from project to project as different people step forward with their expertise. Weekly creative reviews invite a no-holds-barred discussion about how to resolve project challenges or what word best captures the company mission. I lead here, then you lead there and I willingly follow.
Yet in all our varied leadership roles, we value how one individual in particular keeps us all humming along—the creatives busily creating, the production team calmly producing, the developers intricately developing. That individual is someone we fondly call the account manager.
At Journey, account managers are responsible for all projects that arise from the specific clients under their care. They use their superpowers to make sure clients are heard, team members are informed, and all work is performed on time, on budget, and with creative and technical excellence.
The balance between operating as a client advocate and as a cherished teammate is a tricky one—and account managers can find themselves caught in the middle. Yet that’s where they exhibit leadership qualities extraordinaire: smoothing or improving processes, initiating difficult conversations if something doesn’t go as planned, rallying the team when deadlines are shortened because the client simply needs something sooner than expected.
We’re all leaders here. But you, you account managers: You know who you are. Kudos to you most of all for leading our clients—and the rest of us—down the yellow brick road.
*With credit to Brené Brown and Chapter 6 of her book Daring Greatly