"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

This article offers five key leadership fundamentals from Kim Christiansen, NRECA's managing director, governance and business strategy. Kim works with cooperative leadership to improve governance.

There are two common leadership questions that I get. One comes from boards who are seeking a new leader or evaluating a current one. They ask “what" to look for in leadership. The other comes from employees interested in becoming a leader or a current CEO who wishes to improve their skills. They ask “how" to become a good leader.

My response is simple: You have to work at being a great leader. I believe that all leadership principles can be condensed into these five key leadership fundamentals:

1. A Great Leader Practices Appreciation and Humility

Great leaders know that leaders demonstrate both appreciation for those around them and humility by encouraging others and acknowledging contributions.

A great leader:

  • Listens to and recognizes concerns, both express and implied, with which those around him/her are struggling.

  • Adapts and lives with the difficulties that others face.

  • Works to understand challengesnot the leader'sbut those shared by others.

  • Acts purposefully, by seeking information and listening to others, rather than just reacting.

  • Welcomes input and gives credit where credit is due.

2. A Great Leader Stresses Communication

Good communication builds trust, improves productivity and ensures that the job is done right.

A great leader:

  • Communicates ideas in a manner that allows others to see the problem and the solutions.

  • Simplifies concepts to make the assignment clear or the mission understandable.

  • Understands that having a team that sees the overall picture is better than individuals assigned to each do a task.

  • Knows the team must understand why component parts, even the lowly ones, are vital.

  • Freely shares information rather than hoards it to increase his/her own power.

  • Listens as much as speaks; plans as much as delivers; shares personal moments as much as addresses the room.

3. A Great Leader Understands and Cultivates Trust

A great leader builds trust by:

  • Appreciating that trust is a two-way street. People will not trust if they do not feel trusted. Far worse, others may lose their ability to do their best work.

  • Delegating without trying to control the details. They understand that once delegated, others must be given the authority to do what needs to be done.

  • Accepting failure in some efforts. Allowing others to fail can be a positive lesson and great leaders encourage learning from mistakes.

  • Recognizing great ideas and solutions can come from anywhere. So, they encourage others to challenge their own ideas.

4. A Great Leader Encourages and Practices Innovation

“We've always done it this way." I call those the six fatal words. It is far easier and feels safer to stay with a familiar pattern.

A great leader:

  • Understands both the desire for a routine and the need to innovate and change.

  • Doesn't implement change simply for change's sake.

  • Demonstrates the need for change and allows others to see how it can be done.

  • Acknowledges how hard change can be and encourages and enables others to try new things.

  • Understands that failure is an expected part of change and innovation and encourages those who fail to try again.

5. A Great Leader Works at Becoming a Better Leader

Leaders earn their leadership status through patience, intention, listening and a mindset that includes both long- and short-term impacts.

A great leader:

  • Knows that leadership skills take work and practice.

  • Reflects on past situations for key responses and learns from mistakes.

  • Works with those around him/her to plan for events that may happen.

  • Understands and practices solid risk management and change management.

  • Reads, attends seminars and keeps an open mind to increase, hone and improve their leadership skills.

The leaders I have worked with who appear to have a natural gift for leadership have all indicated that they continually work to hone the five leaderships skills discussed here. They keep learning and keep practicing these skills.

Perhaps Douglas MacArthur best summarized what it takes to be a leader:

"A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent."

I firmly believe that if you take these five fundamentals to heart then you can become a great leader.

The following reading list includes some classic leadership books:

  • Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Truth About Leadership, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner
  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don't, Jim Collins
  • Tribes, Seth Godin
  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven R. Covey
  • The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen

As NRECA's managing director, governance and business strategy, Kim Christiansen works with cooperative leadership to improve governance. Prior to joining NRECA, she served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Nebraska Rural Electric Association and Director of Government Relations and Legal Counsel for Kansas Electric Cooperatives.