3 Traits of Best-in-Class Leaders: On the Battlefield and in the Corner Office

By John Michel

I have long been fascinated by the traits and characteristics of successful leaders. As I reflect on more than two decades of leading organizations in both peace and war, I have come to appreciate how the traits that make someone a best-in-class senior military leader, strategist, motivator, and exceptional general also describe the attributes of effective and exceptional chief executive officers. With this in mind, I would like to share three timeless traits of best-in-class leaders in any industry.

1. Be confidently decisive. Best-in-class generals and CEOs recognize that a decent plan executed now is often better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow. They realize the most gifted leader is worthless if he or she cannot be decisive in their decision-making. And they appreciate that, in a dynamic, ever-changing world, stagnation leads to complacency and complacency kills your team’s momentum and positions you to become irrelevant.

Don’t wait for perfect clarity on what is happening around you. Be comfortable assessing the situation, seeking the right information, providing clear intent, and then getting out of the way and trusting your people to get the job done.

For example, Karen Ross, CEO of Sharp Decisions, looked at the situation facing post-9/11 veterans and discovered an opportunity to put these highly skilled vets to work. As she says, “It’s the next generation of young people, they raised their hands, and some of their friends never made it back, so you commit to them. It’s a win for me, it’s a win for the client, and it’s a win for the veteran”

2. Resolve to judge quality, not people. Best-in-class generals and CEOs possess a strong sense of fairness. Without it, one cannot effectively lead. This means they staunchly believe that talent and work ethic get people promoted, nothing else. They make it a priority to treat employees with dignity and respect.

Be a leader who operates on the moral high ground. Hold your people to a high standard by enforcing discipline fairly and consistently. Give people reason to believe they will be appropriately recognized and rewarded for their efforts.

3. Be determined to grow replacements. Best-in-class generals and CEOs understand that their top priority is developing talent and growing more leaders. As the CEO of MV Transportation is fond of saying, “Strategy is meaningless without a strong and very deep bench of talent throughout your company.” Invest your best in developing those around you. It is the greatest investment you can make as a leader.

If you take nothing else away from this article, remember being a best-in-class executive isn’t about you. It is about effectively and selflessly serving those entrusted to you. Your primary role is to set a standard worth following and ideally, emulating. Be a beacon—a light in the darkness. Choose to guide your team through hurdles and obstacles by being the first to endure hardship and the last to celebrate victory.

Then you will know how exceptional leadership in its purest, most rewarding form is foremost about exercising confidence, resolve, and determination.

John Michel is currently the Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer, MV Transportation and President of MV Global. A former Air Force General who led NATO’s 14-nation, $6.7B effort to build an independent, sustainable Afghan Air Force, he is a popular speaker and best-selling author on topics of culture, social media, strategy and individual and organizational change. You can find out more about John at GeneralLeadership.com or by following him on twitter at @JohnEMichel.



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