What Are the Three Qualities That Strong Leaders Possess?

SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, and business leader Carly Fiorina discuss leading during tough times

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie June 15, 2020

​Business leaders must demonstrate courage, humility and empathy if they hope to guide their employees through current crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing protests over police brutality against black people.

That was the message during a LinkedIn discussion yesterday between Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, and Carly Fiorina, a former GOP presidential contender and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

"Leaders must have the courage to see the truth, speak the truth and act on the truth," Fiorina said during the hourlong discussion titled "True Leadership: Now More Than Ever," which streamed live on LinkedIn and can be viewed for free. Right now, she said—especially given what she called systemic racism—"the truth that we're seeing and speaking ... is discouraging."

Tough Time for Leaders

Taylor and Fiorina acknowledged that it's a tough time for leaders: The coronavirus pandemic has shut down businesses, cost jobs and left leaders struggling to manage entire workforces that were suddenly doing their jobs remotely. And George Floyd, a black man, was killed in Minneapolis during an arrest after a white police officer knelt on Floyd's neck while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down, begging for his life and repeatedly saying "I can't breathe." The killing ignited demonstrations and protests around the world.

"I wish that people really understood that true leaders lose a lot of sleep," Taylor said. "I run every risk of offending as many people by speaking truth and acting on truth as I do making half of the population feel good about it."

Taylor said that with the Floyd murder in particular, he finds himself frustrated that the country is still struggling with racial issues that his grandparents experienced decades ago.

"I'm both an African American and a CEO," he said. "Equally importantly, I'm an American. I'm a dad. I want my daughter not to have to experience what my grandparents and my parents did … what I've experienced."

Top Three Qualities of Good Leaders: Courage, Humility, Empathy

Effective leaders, both agreed, are courageous and willing to not only recognize the truth, speak it and act on it, but also to realize that their actions won't please everyone.

"It's easier to go along to get along," Fiorina said. "No matter what you do, someone will criticize. That just goes with the territory. That is the price of leadership."

Humility, she said, means that a leader doesn't just "talk at" employees, but is willing to realize that "they don't know it all," and to listen, question and ask for help in leading.

Empathy, Taylor said, is "the key to solving so many of our most vexing problems." He said he believes that empathy was behind yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that civil rights law protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. Until that decision, it was legal in more than half the states to fire workers for being gay, bisexual or transgender.

"It took a long time for us to get there … and I think it was rooted in empathy," he said of the ruling.

Where HR Comes In

Twenty years ago, when he was practicing HR at a major corporation and would approach his leaders about company culture, Taylor said, even serious CEOs "would go, 'Oh gosh, here go these soft HR people talking about culture. What do you want me to do? Set up Ping-Pong tables?' "

But the HR practice has evolved, he noted, such that many businesses now understand how a healthy workplace culture can help leaders prevent and address racism, sexism and other ills.

Said Fiorina: "Culture is the software of a business. I would describe goals, strategy, structure, process, reporting, metrics [and] results as the hardware of an organization. Culture is the software. And if the software doesn't support the hardware, guess what? Your phone won't work. And your organization won't work either."


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