Sunday, 25 November 2012

5 Descriptive Traits Of An Effective Organisational Leader

I had started writing this article a few weeks ago when I 'discovered' the hit show "Undercover Boss USA" on cable television. Actually I had known that it aired every week but had only made a mental note to watch it. One day however, I settled down to watch an episode and immediately became hooked. 

In a nutshell, the programme illustrates how a CEO/COO/President of a thriving company goes undercover as a new employee in the organisation he manages/owns so as to really learn more about the business. In order to explain the presence of a filming crew on the premises, the week-long experience is filmed under the guise of assisting the 'novice in familiarising himself with the operations of the company, with the aim of gaining some entry-level training or similar experience. The 'undercover boss' is treated like a regular employee. The show ends when the 'undercover boss' is unveiled, often to the understandably-astonished staff with whom he had had the most interaction. He then shares valuable insights learned from the experience - about his employees; about the company, (good or bad); and about himself - and outlines the changes he would introduce for better organisational effectiveness. He also rewards employees who displayed exemplary service during his 'undercover' stint.

While episodes differ in terms of the type of companies featured, there is a common denominator: the bosses are passionate about, and emotionally attached to their companies and are genuinely desirous of change. They also come to appreciate the 'human element' in their companies and gain a better understanding of how the employees actually determine the success, (and profitability), of their corporations.

Featured in the first two seasons were the actual CEOs, (or in a few cases top management executives), of companies such as: '1-800 Flowers', 'Great Wolf',  'DirecTV',  'Chiquita',  and many others. I took special note when the well-known sports franchise giant, 'NASCAR', sent its Chief Marketing Officer undercover to conduct, (as the show explained), some "messy hands-on market research" for the company.

Now I realise that the issue of leadership has been discussed for decades and that undoubtedly, there are numerous accounts, books and references detailing characteristics of good leaders. I do not intend to re-invent the wheel. However, the TV programme aided in my musings about the issue of leadership and the traits an effective leader should possess in the organisational context. Below is my list of five non-negotiable traits an organisational leader should (aspire to)  possess. He should be:

1) Passionate about the organisation

This is the number one visible trait of the 'undercover bosses', most of whom were founders of the featured companies or had the responsibility of running the companies passed on to them from preceding generations.  It is really simple : the more passionate a leader is about a cause, the more likely he is to exude confidence and more importantly, the more likely that people, (his employees in particular), would 'get it' and become passionate themselves about his vision. They figure that if the CEO is investing his time, energy and resources into X venture, clearly communicating his vision, 'living and breathing' his cause, then that cause should benefit the organisation and by extension, them as well.  The leader gets the collective 'buy-in' of his staff which spurs on the necessary action. At the very least, he will be exposed to varied viewpoints, even from those who oppose his ideas/methods. Insights learnt therein would be crucial in adjusting or tweaking the proposed plan in order to successfully implement his vision for the company.

By contrast, a newly-appointed CEO who is only interested in figures and operational performance, would not be perceived to really care about the company or its employees and would be unlikely to elicit true commitment for a change that he seeks to implement. Employees may even become suspicious of his plans and may believe that his interests are self-seeking and designed to make him 'look good' to the Board and other stakeholders. They are also likely to resist the change and withhold their support, (leading to a lack of true engagement), all to the detriment of the cause.

This trait is, or should be, closely associated with the following: excellent communication skillshonesty and integrity. These three pillars in turn fuel the passion for the organisation.

2) Flexible


An effective leader should be flexible - flexible in his approach to the operational strategies; flexible in relinquishing 'power'; and flexible in his outlook - in the short, mid and long term. This is particularly difficult if the leader possesses 'superior' knowledge of the business or if he runs a family business which has been in existence for generations and which is renowned by upholding the specific traditions. He simply must learn to delegate for greater effectiveness since he cannot be all things to all men all of the time.

Delegation is tough but it is often necessary. This point is echoed by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, renowned for her rapid career progression, and who at 37, is reportedly number  three on 'Fortunes 40 Under 40' list; number fourteen on the 'Fortune Most Powerful Women' list; and the youngest CEO male or female on the 'Fortune 500' list. She is quoted as stating: "Do things that you're not quite ready to do. And surround yourself with the smartest people".

A leader must be flexible enough to delegate and to make allowances for human errors by his staff for two reasons. Firstly, delegation sparks trust and autonomy, as well as a sense of accountability. Secondly, professionals learn quickly from mistakes they make. These people are more likely to put in greater effort at finding solutions than they would have been if they did not feel 'invested' in the project or cause.

Most important of all is this: flexibility begets innovation and innovation is essential for organisational longevity.

3) Concerned about employees

There is no way around this issue. He must be concerned about the well-being of his employees, their mental states and most especially, what goes on in their personal lives. I am not necessarily advocating a heart-to-heart talk with every employee or a telephone call at random hours to enquire if 'all is well'. Some employees like to keep their work lives separate from their private lives. What is essential is that a listening culture is cultivated whereby employees' concerns are genuinely discussed and practical solutions offered.

At the workplace, stress should be minimised and a healthy work-life balance encouraged as much as possible. The effective leader should think twice before introducing measures which would put (greater) financial strains on the employees. I believe that across the globe, cases of depression, hypertension, heart attacks, suicidal attempts etc. are often sadly triggered by high stress levels at work and the threat of financial ruin. Female employees in particular should take note of stress-triggers which cause health problems. An article for Harvard Women's Health Watch  makes a case for the strong link between work-related stress and heart problems.

Suffice to say that a burnt-out, de-motivated and aggrieved workforce does not translate to productivity. In fact quite the opposite is true. Research in the organisational behavioural science field reveals that aggrieved employees tend to engage in theft, shut-downs and other negative retaliatory behaviours, especially if they perceive that injustices are being committed. And the most visible injustice, I would imagine, would be reductions to their salaries or compensation packages for frivolous reasons, without due consideration to the economy and/or their family responsibilities.

Associated with this trait of being compassionate is having good interpersonal skills. An effective leader should be sensitive to cultural and religious differences and should seek to treat employees with respect and professional courtesy. Just because people work for him in various capacities, does not give him the right to 'lord' it over them and treat them with arrogance, disdain or indifference. An effective leader must realise, just like those depicted in the “Undercover Boss USA” shows, that the talented and dedicated workforce is the heartbeat of the organisation, without whom the company's growth is stalled.

4) Relevant

This is one of the most important descriptive traits to cultivate. In this era of rapid technology, the effective leader must be open to change and new possibilities that would benefit the organisation, even if he is required to step out of his comfort zone. If he is truly passionate about his company, he should seek knowledge and should search for ways his organisation could remain relevant and innovative in accordance with the changing operational environment.

One useful way to do this is to use social media. The leader who has a social media phobia would have to familiarise himself with the various social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and numerous others to stay relevant. He should ensure that competent staff represent the company and effectively manage its online reputation, which is crucial to a healthy corporate image. Such staff must be trained regularly about the companys expectations, and should be advised on what is and is not acceptable online, given that they would be the 'voice' of the company in the digital world.  They should be aware that managing the corporate reputation online is serious business and not a frivolous exercise.

It is now not unusual for some CEOs or top executives to have Twitter accounts and to 'tweet' regularly about their organisations. Celebrities and entertainers also tweet, even about mundane things - such as where they are thinking of having lunch, or an experience they simply must share with their fans -  and enjoy a huge fan base of 'followers' exceeding thousands and (in some cases), millions.

Even politicians have caught the 'social media bug', and in the months preceding the elections, both President Obama of the United States (US), and Republican flag-bearer, Mitt Romney, operated official Twitter accounts. They, (or in some cases, their campaign staff), tweeted about policies and plans in order to gain support for the November 2012 presidential elections1. Both also have functional LinkedIn profiles with impressive CVs and achievements2. Even though the incumbent, President Obama, won his second term bid in the elections, I am of the opinion that both politicians stayed relevant to the citizenry, even to the younger generation. I also watched snippets of Obama's victory speech at the Obama Headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, at about 12.50am (Eastern US time), on November 5th. At such an hour, when they should have been in bed, I was surprised to see young people and children in the audience, listening with rapt attention and (sometimes) in utter astonishment, at the energy exuded by the charismatic leader with his eloquent, inspiring speech.

Moreover, as regards to 'damage control actions', Twitter is a good platform for quickly tackling and correcting misinformation, outright lies or distorting of facts when an organisational  crisis breaks. This is essential because in the wake of a crisis, as is explained in the 'importance of feedback' section in this post, speculation and rumours become rife and wreck havoc on the corporate image when official statements are delayed.  

Relevance and importance of Twitter during a disaster

It is important to note how leaders in general turn to the Twitter platform to consolidate their reach and relevance, especially during a disaster. Effective organisational leaders should take note of this veritable asset. Case in point: 'Hurricane Sandy' which hit the US on October 29th.

For disaster preparedness and management of the effects of the 'super storm', Twitter was a very useful platform for quick breaking news, as well as for discussions and dissemination of crucial information.  

'Hurricane Sandy' caused massive flooding, devastation, deaths and plunged millions of people into darkness. CNN's Twitter account  reported that during that period, over 6.5 million people were without power across 13 states and Washington D.C. Among the twenty million tweets which circulated cyberspace before, during and a few days after the hurricane according to the Huffington Post, it was interesting to note those of the Governors of some of the affected states, such as tweets from Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey3. They personally used Twitter to perpetuate important information in an effort to keep their constituents safe and to instill hope. Moreover, notable news anchor, CNN's Piers Morgan4 tweeted blow-by-blow updates of 'Hurricane Sandy' and its impact in the affected states. Renowned online media authority Arianna Huffington5 also re-tweeted (live) information either reported from the Huffington Post Media or other sources, during the period 29th-30th October. When power outages delayed updates from traditional media, people set Twitter a-buzz with information, (and sometimes misinformation); Instagram pictures, (either taken during the storm or its aftermath); and with somewhat emotional messages of advice and support.

In a nutshell, an effective organisational leader should be relevant and well versed in the social media revolution for better effectiveness. He should also realise that being relevant is also intricately linked to being an effective communicator, especially in this rapidly-evolving world whereby social media should be embraced.

One should note however, that excessive reliance on social media is reportedly counter-productive . There are also important points to consider before hopping on the Twitter wagon  as is explained in this post . Nevertheless, when utilised wisely, social media is essential to the organisation's reputation and wider stakeholder acceptance.

If an aspiring effective organisational leader is still unconvinced about the power of Twitter in making him relevant, then Jeff Bullas' post about the explosive power of the re-tweet  should allay all vestiges of doubt, apathy and indifference to social media , and to Twitter in particular.

5) 'Cool-headed'

This might sound a little bit humorous but keeping a 'cool head' is necessary in times of operational failures, crises or scandals. Screaming at the top of one's voice, looking for scapegoats or making rash decisions, all do not solve problems. In fact, such actions alienate the staff, cause high-stress situations and even strain relationships with allies.

An effective leader should aim to be rational and fair in tough situations. It might be necessary to take some time out to 'clear' his head in order to assess the situation more logically; even when it does seem like the world is falling apart at the seams. Things may or may not be as bad as they seem, but being 'cool-headed' communicates two things: i) hope to the workforce, and ii) confidence in the ability of  the CEO to find appropriate solutions even if company-wide sacrifices would be required.

There are also health benefits for even-tempered leaders such as reduced stress levels, lower risk of hypertension and heart problems and overall, increased 'wellness' of mind and body.


I can appreciate that being a leader is not an easy calling with challenges constantly being faced. Being an effective leader is even more difficult but one must address this point: communications, inherent in all the traits listed above, are thus crucial for successful leadership.

While we are all flawed as human beings and may protest in frustration that no one is perfect, being able to face the truth about one's strengths and limitations and not being too proud to seek advice, is very important to being successful. In some cases, that is half the battle solved.

Perhaps organisational leaders should have an 'undercover boss' mentality and be willing to un-learn their idealistic ideas about how their companies should be run.

Perhaps they should be willing to seek and embrace new perspectives from an unlikely source - their employees, those 'unsung heroes' in the trenches and test methods recommended by the staff. Who knows? They just might become better equipped to lead their companies towards greater effectiveness.

And I strongly recommend the "Undercover Boss shows which have versions for the U.K, Australia and Canada...


1Barack Obamas official Twitter account is handled by his campaign team:  His personal tweets are marked "bo".

Mitt Romney's Twitter account:

2Barack Obama's LinkedIn profile:

Mitt Romney's LinkedIn profile:

Governor Corbett's tweets:

Governor Christie's tweets:

4Piers' Morgan's tweets:

Arianna Huffingon's tweets:

N.B- Images courtesy of Animations courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and


  1. An excellent incisive article on effective leadership.

  2. Thank you for your kind comment. Glad you found it interesting.

    Visit again soon!


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