How to Be a Great Leader

If they don’t walk around with a large “L” emblazoned on their chests or gain fame as those who kept calm in a crisis and cooly avoided disaster, how do we identify the great leaders among us? Ask people in Westchester, and you’ll quickly discover that those so labeled share many of the same qualities—certain personality traits that make them stand out, motivate others to follow or join them, and inspire both action and admiration from colleagues, employees, clients, and friends.

By far, empathy is the quality that people most identified with great leaders. According to R. Bonnie Haber, president of management consulting firm Corporate Calm, LLC, in Croton-on-Hudson, it’s “critically important” for a leader to be able to understand others’ perspectives—especially when he or she is working to resolve issues with employees or inspire employees to be even more productive. But, don’t confuse empathy with wimpiness, warns Wendy Kaufman, founder and president of national training company Balancing Life’s Issues in Ossining. She points to Lindsay Farrell, president and CEO of Open Door Family Medical Centers, as a tough but empathetic leader whose strength has led the organization to flourish, despite the difficult economic environment.

“Business leaders need to understand the emotions of everyone involved, including their own,” says Kaufman—without, that is, taking action solely based on their emotions. Richard Magid, author, leadership coach, and founder of SoundBoard Consulting Group, LLC, in Boonton Township, New Jersey, says empathy is a key element of “emotional intelligence”—a quality that helps leaders know what their staffs really need and truly want. Having empathy also allows leaders—great leaders—to put themselves in the shoes of others. But it’s knowing where—and how—to walk in those shoes that separates a great leader from everyone else. That’s where vision comes in. Having vision—seeing a bright, productive future for their companies—is another quality that great leaders share.

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How do leaders develop their vision? Often, of course, it’s innate. But sometimes it can be learned. One great educational option for young female leaders in Westchester is the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, based out of its namesake company’s headquarters in Irvington. Participants come together to develop their leadership skills and goals and learn not only how to develop vision but also how to impart that vision to their employees.
But, of course, a leader’s vision must be shared; great leaders know how to communicate their vision—and communicate it well. “They are clear on their values and vision, and communicate them clearly and frequently, in word and deed, to those who depend on them,” says Ron Volper, founder and managing partner of the Ron Volper Group, Inc. in White Plains, which, it maintains, has helped more than 300 companies, in addition to 87 of the Fortune 500, become more profitable and increase their market share.     

For a leader to achieve his or her vision, he or she must “set goals and be demanding,” but must also—and this takes us back to the first trait all leaders have—treat his or her employees with respect, and insist they treat others with respect, too. Mitch Taube, president of Elmsford-based Digiscribe International, is a business leader who, Richard Magid says, “is a visionary in his industry and frequently communicates the company’s vision and key objectives to his team. He expects a lot from his people and is clear on what standards need to be maintained so that his company’s clients get the best service possible.”

A great leader is guided not only by his or her vision, but also by integrity, a principle that Webster Bank’s Westchester and Lower Fairfield Market Manager Maria Freburg calls “a moral compass that always points north.” Adherence to ethical principles is as fundamental to positive leadership as its absence is to stories about greedy CEOs and disgraced politicians on the evening news. Richard S. Hyland, professor and global business curriculum chair at SUNY Westchester Community College, defines integrity as “the ability of an individual to remain absolute in the face of temptation and other pressures.”  

Angela Taylor, chief assistant and community representative for the Office of the Mayor of New Rochelle, epitomizes integrity, according to David Severance, president and CEO of Advanced Development Services, a coaching and training company in Rye. “She’s an exemplary leader who’s involved in almost every volunteer effort going on in the city,” says Severance, who is also a facilitator of The Volunteer Center of United Way’s Leadership Westchester program. “She’s always there, and when she says she’ll do something, you know she’ll do it and do it right.”

Even for a great leader, things do not always go as planned—including, or perhaps especially, in business. So, flexibility is a must. “It is a cliché to say the world is changing rapidly,” says Professor Hyland. “Innovation continues, and social changes are afoot.” In fact, being flexible, or adaptable to change, is not enough, he says. It’s incumbent upon leaders to reflect those changes in their vision for the direction of the company. They “must stay abreast of changes in one’s field and just about everything else that might impact one’s firm or industry.”

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is “an example of a committed, driven, successful, and flexible leader,” says Bonnie Haber of Corporate Calm in Croton. “He acknowledges when a mistake is made and finds a way to move forward without blaming and embarrassing his employees.”

Hyland adds that “flexibility also extends to the personal level, which means being able to identify and change one’s own biases and assumptions.” Putting them aside to really listen to and value the input of others can make a leader more successful. “Be a good questioner and listener,” Ron Volper says.

Still one more quality that great leaders share: passion. Great leaders work—a lot. They get up early, stay up late, and in between, they consistently look for (and implement) new, better, more creative, and more efficient ways to get the job done. To Maria Freburg, the passion that drives a leader comes from having “the heart of a servant.” For David Severance, passion is evidenced by exceptional progress, like what Reena Kashyap, executive director of the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, has achieved in her 15-year tenure there.

“She has turned it into an international melting pot, serving artists, children, adults, and the Westchester community. They have established fellowship programs for new artists to get a place to start their careers, they have a new gallery that’s open to the public with monthly exhibits, and they work with many entities in the Port Chester community.”

Severance says Kashyap was the force behind All Fired Up!, a countywide celebration of clay in 2008 that he describes as an incredible collaboration of governments, organizations, and educational institutions throughout Westchester.

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Being a great leader comes down to five qualities: empathy, vision, integrity, flexibility, and passion…and, with those, a leader earns something else: admiration.

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