How to enhance your leadership skills (from APWA President)

By intouch posted 07-02-2017 07:32

Ronald J Calkins, President, American Public Works Association 

It is quite easy to recognise a great leader when you see one, but very difficult to define what makes that person a strong leader. Are you a strong leader? Do you really have a good perspective on this?

I have spent most of my career trying to be a good manager and leader. As a young 30-something manager, I took courses on how to be a good manager and learned valuable lessons that focused on planning, organising, directing and controlling the flow of work. I looked for similar guidance on how to be a great leader, but wasn't very successful.

Having a left-brain perspective, I wanted a formula for leadership, or at least a tangible guide. At first, I found some suggested traits such as vision, accountability, delegation, empowerment and communication, but this really didn't hit the mark.

APWA President Ronald J Calkins

It became clear that leadership is an art rather than a science. Leadership is a set of traits that can be refined and perfected over time with education, training and experience. But what are these traits?

After spending many years observing successful leaders and learning from others, I have developed a summary of the real-life traits that I have observed are the key to being a strong leader.

Before we focus on those traits, a couple of key points for perspective:

  • Leadership is an art, while management is a science
  • True leaders are found in all parts of an organisation, not just at the top, or where you would expect (or want) to find them
Whether one is at the top of the organisation or an informal leader within, any leader needs to be able to motivate, inspire, promote and develop those around them. I believe there are six key traits that a leader must possess in order to keep an organisation on track and moving forward. Those six traits are reputation; positive attitude; values; ambition; humbleness; and being 'in-tune'. Let's focus on each of these traits.

Reputation is the most important trait of all. A leader must be credible, reliable and have the utmost integrity in everything they do. Their actions match their words and they are considered totally trustworthy. It has been found that it takes an average of seven years for a person to develop a sound reputation. As a result, a new boss hired from outside an organisation will have authority from day one, but will not be a true leader.

One can have all of the other traits that we will cover, but if a person does not have a positive reputation, all the other traits do not seem to matter.

A positive attitude is a very important leadership trait. Positive energy is contagious. Just think of the team dynamics when you are around those positive leaders. You feel inspired. You want to be part of that team. Work is easier and more fun.

Humour is also part of a positive attitude. The weekly staff meeting provides a glimpse into the health of an organisation. Is it all serious, matter-of-fact business or is there a mix of business and humour? Are people having fun at work?

Values are one's core beliefs, but since they are held deep inside, how do others know what they are? Others learn quickly from our actions because they mirror our values. As a result, ethical decisions are the key to exhibiting strong values.

A leader's focus should always be on doing the right thing. Strong leaders always make decisions based on their communitiesí (or companiesí) best interest, never their own.

Ambition and high energy are traits of great leaders. They are enthusiastic and ambitious for the team, not themselves. They are fanatically driven and disciplined to move the team forward. They are ambitious for the teamís success, not their own. The focus of their ambition is to bring together the team, get them working toward a common goal and then remain dedicated to a successful outcome.

Humble is defined as having a modest estimate of oneís own importance. Strong leaders make sure their focus is on contributing as a workhorse, not a show pony. They give credit to others for successes and accept blame when things go wrong. They also treat everyone fairly while showing congeniality and respect for everyone.

Leaders also prevent others from bringing down the team or individuals. Nothing brings a group down faster than one who desires to implode the work of others. A true leader believes in and builds up staff at every opportunity.

Finally, being 'in-tune' is having an accurate pulse on the operation. Strong leaders take the time to focus on others in many different settings, both in groups and as individuals. They listen and learn what team members are working on and if there are any unresolved issues. They are empathetic to their challenges and work hard to provide necessary resources for success.

Knowing, refining and perfecting these traits is critical to enhancing oneís leadership qualities, yet leadership boils down to a choice. One must be willing to step forward and take the challenge. If one has the innate qualities, training and experience but would rather stay hidden in the crowd, they will not be a leader.

Now that we have reviewed what I have come to believe are the most important traits of strong leaders, let's look at building strong teams.

So what do you look for when building a strong team? I have found the following key attributes of strong team members:

  • Intelligence
  • Positive attitude
  • Collaborative
  • Loyalty, integrity
  • Communicators
  • Balanced ego
  • Driven to get things done
So do these traits sound familiar? They should – they are very similar to the traits we just discussed for strong leaders. You want to be working with and encouraging strong leaders in all corners of your organisation.

I often refer to a quote from General Colin Powell regarding signs of failed leadership. He said, "The day (they) stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure in leadership." When your staff no longer needs you, you have a problem.

The American Public Works Association (APWA) and IPWEA have announced the launch of a collaborative infrastructure management program. APWA and IPWEA will work together to the internationally recognised Professional Certificate in Asset Management Planning to North America, beginning in CanadaLearn more. 



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