5 Traits Every Young Leader Needs to Be Successful

The key to success for young leaders is not to focus, but to say “yes.” Yes to diverse opportunities, roles, and tasks. Research demonstrates that younger leaders need broad experience in order to develop their strengths, judgment, character, and identify their calling. That’s just one of five ways young leaders need to develop.

I know a 24-year-old leader who was frustrated and ready to quit his job because his company wouldn’t put him in a role where he could use his strengths and focus on what he was most passionate about. He thought he should be in charge of not only his team, but the whole office in that city.

This isn’t the case of a Millennial’s sense of entitlement. This example is of a Baby Boomer from 25 years ago. This young leader misunderstood how a leader develops.

5 Traits Every Young Leader Needs to Be Successful

Young leaders want to get things done and to be as efficient as possible while doing them. That’s fine with many things, but “efficient” and “leader development” don’t often go together. You can’t rush leader development.

Leader development requires growth in these five areas:

1. Knowledge. I remember being a confident 21-year-old University of Washington graduate thinking I knew most of what I needed in order to be successful. I was ready to take on the world!

We pick up information, theories, facts, and history through our study, whether at a University or on our own. Armed with knowledge we understand the world – or at least the parts of it important to us. Knowledge, and even IQ, aren’t the biggest factors in what makes a leader. They are only small pieces of the puzzle.

2. Skills. We apply our knowledge by using skills. There are two broad categories: technical skills and people skills. Technical skills include how to work the machinery, your computer, or that marketing system to do your job. People skills include how to work effectively with others, draw out their strengths, encourage and inspire, and resolve conflict.

Technical skills are much easier to master than people skills. Computer code always works according to certain rules. People skills, on the other hand, are much more difficult to learn because of the seemingly endless number of variations in people’s behaviors – including your own.

3. Judgment. Chinese philosopher Han Fei Tzu wrote, “It is not difficult to know a thing; what is difficult is to know how to use what you know.” Judgement, not skill, is at issue here. Judgment is the ability to wisely apply knowledge and skills. It’s the ability to accurately assess risk and make decisions. It’s deciding when to act and when to back off.

You can be “right” and still be wrong. A friend of mine fired a person for proper causes. However, as a result, the attitudes of the team members changed to safety and low risk-taking. She asked a mentor about the situation and before she could finish the story the mentor predicted the change in team members. Only experience teaches good judgment. The manager’s lack of experience didn’t take into account the broader perspective of the team. That’s judgment.

Judgment is easy when the options are black and white. However, most of life is grey. It takes perspective and experience to weigh factors and choose a course of action wisely.

4. Character. Our society is too focused on a leader’s knowledge and skills. Those two traits are easy to discern, yet, 8 out of 10 times the reason we don’t like working with a person is because of their character. They are impatient, take credit for the team’s success, blame others, are negative, pushy, self-serving, or you can’t count on them to do what they said they would.

Character is developed through testing. With external oversight most people behave properly. When that oversight goes away, because of leadership advancement or success, the real character of the person comes out. It works like this. If a person has no opportunity to steal because someone is always watching, could we say they are honest? Maybe. It’s when they really need it and could take it without anyone knowing – but they don’t – that we could say they are honest. Many character problems emerge only when a person obtains greater freedom, authority, or success.

Developing character is a process of reflecting, discussing with mentors, and acting – followed by further reflection. Successful character testing builds character.

5. Lack of Role Focus. One of the best improvements to my leadership has been role focus. I am focused on the few things that I need to be doing to be successful. I say “no” to many things in order to achieve a high degree of focus. BUT, that’s me. I am not no longer a young leader. The need for role focus becomes a key issue for leaders in their 40s and 50s. For those in their 20s and 30s, it’s the opposite, they need role variety.

Research by J. Robert Clinton, a leadership development expert, demonstrated that younger leaders need to have a broad base of experience doing many different types of tasks and working in a variety of roles in order to develop as leaders. Focusing too early, Clinton found, stunts a leader’s growth. The time frame for this is 10 years, not just the first 2 years out of college.

Call it what you want – passion, calling, mission, purpose – it develops over time and only through diverse experiences. Many a young leader has raced up the ladder only to find a lack of personal fulfillment at the top. It takes a lot of experience for us to understand what provides lasting meaning to us. Judgment and character are also developed through broad, challenging experiences. Hitherto unknown personal strengths emerge out of situations you wouldn’t have signed up for. All these things take time to develop. Don’t focus too early.

Go Slow To Go Far

Leader development is a life-long process. There are no short-cuts, intensives, or fast lanes to develop in these 5 areas. All too often young leaders want to “get through” these lessons to be onto the next thing. Ironically, rushing through development of judgment, character and calling often prolongs the need for work in these very areas.

Instead, adopt a 10-year strategy to view everything as an opportunity to develop broadly. Think of short-cuts as temptations what will just prolong character development. Do the hard work now. Take the high road that leads to long-term successful leader development.

Question: What has helped you to develop? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    3 thoughts on “5 Traits Every Young Leader Needs to Be Successful

    1. This is a helpful article, Keith. Thanks for taking the time to write this…tremendously important not just for young leaders, but also for older leaders to understand.

    2. Dear Dr Keith Webb, thank you for your absorbing article “5 Traits Every Young Leader Needs to Be Successful.” You have hit the nail on the head by saying that ‘Leader development is a life-long process.’ One cannot attain leadership qualities overnight… We need loads of patience, stay focused and be consistent in reaching the goal. Take one day at a time…definitely there are no short cuts in life…we need to climb the ladder steps…