7 Critical Abilities Senior Leaders Must Have

I have held a senior leadership position for over 20 years and been in leadership over 35 years. In this post, I want to express some things I’ve observed (and experienced) as some of the critical abilities a senior leader must have in order to be most effective.

Please understand, I’m not saying you can’t be effective without all of them, or that you have to excel in each of them, or that you won’t stumble in most of them at times. But, consistently over time, these are valuable abilities of a senior leader.

The intent of this post is not to appear arrogant as a senior leader, as if I have qualities others may not have, although I’m confidant some will take it that way. Which, by the way, further illustrates the point of this post. Isn’t being misunderstood part of being a senior leader at times? You should know I’m not afraid to admit my weaknesses. I have many of them, but there are certain abilities senior leaders need, in my opinion, to do their job well.

And, you may not be able to understand this post completely until you’ve served as a senior leader. This is true of many things in life. Take parenting:

  • I remember how many people told me I wouldn’t understand parenting until I was a parent. They were right.
  • I remember how many people told me I should enjoy parenting at every stage of life while my boys were home. It passes fast. They were right.
  • I remember how many told me that I would adjust to being an empty-nester. They were right.
  • And, I remember how many people told me how grand being a grandparent is – even though you’re not with them everyday you think of them everyday – and love them more than you could have imagined. They were absolutely right.

The point is sometimes we can’t understand something until we experience it firsthand.

This is the way it is with being the senior leader in an organization.

When I was a mid-level manager in a large corporation, I remember questioning why senior leadership made some of the decisions they did. Looking back, I would have made some of those decisions differently. Some even gave me illustrations for my book The Mythical Leader. But, many times I can see why the view from their position motivated them to the decisions they made.

All leadership is challenging, but the senior position is a pressure unlike any other. Show me a small business owner, a president, a senior pastor or CEO and I’ll show you someone who carries – in an organizational leadership sense – a heavy burden.

I’ve learned, from observation, some people are qualified to lead from this position and some are not. Some want it. Some don’t. Some know it. Some don’t, but often not until they try.

I’ve also learned a senior leader will struggle in the position when they lack some of these abilities until they grow into them. And, one can grow in them if they are willing to learn. To be most effective, they must be aware of where they need to develop and continually be working towards them. These may be important abilities for all leaders, but they are critical for senior leaders.

Here are 7 critical abilities of senior leaders:

Ability to quickly and strategically think big picture

The senior leader doesn’t have a choice, but to think big picture for the organization at all times. There are lots of decisions made in a day and each of them could be huge. The impact of a senior leader’s decision often impacts everyone in the organization. He or she must learn to “think strategically in the moment“, realizing the impact and the weight of their decisions.

Ability to remain steadfast during adversity

The senior leader must continue to stand strong when everyone else is running from the problem. Especially in times of crisis or controversy, the organization and community around will look for leadership. A senior leader doesn’t have the choice of burying his or her head in the sand when troubles come to the organization. (By the way, I learned this one the hard way and wrote about that HERE.)

Ability to unquestionably keep a confidence

The senior leader usually knows things, which aren’t ready to be released or talked about publicly. He or she must be trusted to keep these confidences. A senior leader must learn how to answer questions and address issues of importance to people without divulging confidential information. They must not say what people want to hear just to be “liked”. One of the quickest ways to lose trust as a senior leader is to develop a reputation as one who “talks too much”. (I wrote about that HERE.)

Ability to fully release control and delegate

The senior leader must wear many hats and oversee all areas of focus within an organization. He or she must be able to trust others and take risks on people to so growth can continue apart from the senior leader’s direct involvement. Delegation is important at all levels of leadership, but for the senior leader it is not an option. In fact, the best leaders I know give the implementation of the vision away freely. (I wrote about that HERE.)

Ability to see all sides of an issue

The senior leader can’t always have things their way or play favorites for any one way, but must balance all the needs within an organization. This is another part of thinking strategically in the moment. Since an organization is built with many separate but equally important parts, the senior leader must view every scenario as it relates to each part of the organization. In a business, as an example, those who are in charge of sales and marketing are just as important as those who keep track of controlling costs. In a church, the music ministry is just as important as the discipleship ministry. (I wrote about that HERE)

Ability to make unpopular decisions

The senior leader must make the wisest decision possible, for the entire good of the organization, based on all the information he or she can gather – even when this means the decision will not be popular. And, that’s hard. In fact, at times it can produce a loneliness of leadership, which can keep many from being able to handle the senior leader position. Leadership involves change and some people can navigate through the reactions people have to change better than others. (I previously wrote about the Emotions of Change. Senior leaders must learn to expect and deal with all of them.)

Ability to embrace healthy conflict for the good of the organization

Wherever there are people there will be conflict. (Do I need to repeat that last sentence?) The senior leader can’t shy away from conflict, which is critical to maintain the health of the organization. The senior leader must recognize the importance of allowing times of conflict to strengthen the organization. They shouldn’t go looking for conflict, but not run from it either. It’s a delicate balance at times. (I wrote about ways to address healthy conflict HERE.)

If you don’t have these abilities don’t quit leading. (Although, if you would after reading one opinion blog post maybe you should.) I don’t have all of these perfected. I’m very much a continual work in progress. But, I do believe it’s important to recognize areas of improvement and seek ways to grow as a senior leader.

I’m sure there are others. These are from my observations and experiences.

Make this post better: Share examples of ineffective senior level leaders you’ve known and which of these were lacking from his or her abilities.

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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