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Six qualities every great leader needs

What separates the leaders from the followers? One established leader says there are six qualities that make the difference.

CHICAGO -- American Airlines Executive Chairman Ed Brennan knows about corporate leaders. He's had a seat on a dozen corporate boards -- he's sitting on four right now. Addressing attendees at the Society for Information Management's SIMposium 2004 last week, Brennan said leadership is one of those things you know when you see it. It's a subtle quality a friend of his described thusly: "I don't know if I can define leadership, but I know when I've been led."

Brennan said he believes that great technology leadership is imperative for businesses. "As an example, on the fateful day of 9/11, American Airlines had many important decisions to make," he said. "On average, at any time during the day, we have 900 to 1,000 planes airborne. The decision was made to ground the fleet, and all planes landed within one hour.

"IT was critical to making and implementing this decision; it would have been impossible without it," he stressed.

So what makes a great corporate leader? According to Brennan, six qualities separate the leaders from the followers:

  1. Integrity: This is a deal breaker if you don't have it completely. When it comes to governance, Brennan said, he "never did anything or asked anyone to do anything he couldn't go home and explain to his kids."
  2. A deep understanding of the business: "You can't fake it. People will know." While you don't need to know every detail, you do have to have a good grasp of the business.
  3. Consistency: While keeping things fresh is important, leaders cannot change direction frequently. They will lose people's confidence.
  4. Willingness to admit a mistake: Everyone makes mistakes. If you're not making any, you're not doing your job right. But Brennan emphasized the importance of admitting your missteps -- otherwise people will not respect you.
  5. The ability to listen: Good leaders must be willing to handle opinions contrary to their own and absorb as much as they can.
  6. Decisiveness: While you should listen to others' opinions, the final decision is yours to make. Brennan said when CEOs fail, very often it's because they are not decisive. Average tenure for a CEO has fallen from more than a decade to three years because people lose confidence in leaders whose indecision results in failure.

So where does the CIO fit into Brennan's framework? The perception of senior management is that IT over-promises and underachieves, he said. Just remember that a good leader will know that results don't happen overnight, and being patient is important, too.

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Whenever I think of Leadership, I remember some interesting insights by Jerry Weinberg:

1. Leadership is like sex. Many people have trouble discussing the subject, but it never fails to arouse intense
interest and feelings.

2. People who look really sexy are often great disappointments when it comes to actual performance. It's the
same with people who look like leaders. They believe they're supposed to do it well by instinct, not by
practice—and certainly not by reading books. 
Considering that the article makes an application of these qualities to the CIO role, "deep understanding of the business" also requires willingness to learn and adapt constantly, as information technologies constantly evolve. A leader must be a visionary.