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From Wayne Gretzky to the CEO of Starbucks: 10 Virtues True Leaders Have in Common

From the art of lowering stress to fostering productive debate, key skills gifted business executives use to propel their companies.

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We've heard it before and will continue to hear it: The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically shifted the way we live and work. Industries were completely disrupted and businesses had to change strategies at the drop of a hat (in some cases several times). Business and community leaders worldwide have had to step up to the plate like never before, and their successes — and the success of many leaders before them — aren't a coincidence. These people are a product of attributes they spent years cultivating.

Hard skills are a critical component of any professional role, including how swiftly you climb the ladder and have an impact, but I've found that soft skills are the keys to driving the most significant value for yourself and your business.

Growth isn't just about numbers. There's a human side that's arguably just as important, both to your development and that of those around you. It's how you successfully surround yourself with intelligent people, how you convince investors you're worth a shot and how you propel a business to the next level. Of course, we all have values that we firmly stand by; some we learned at a young age, others are gathered over time.

Here are the top 10 virtues embodied by leaders whom I admire, and the good news is that anyone can cultivate them if they try.

1. Apply the "Golden Rule"

Treat others the way you would like to be treated. It's easy to get caught up in the noise, and we all make mistakes, but the important thing is that we learn from them. So, before acting, make a point of asking yourself how you'd want a situation to unfold if the shoe was on the other foot.

2. Set a high bar for talent

Talent attracts talent, and good leaders recognize this. By maintaining high standards, you draw people who have the potential to do the best work of their careers. And this has a compounding effect: being surrounded by talented people pushes everyone to grow faster. Changemaker and advertising tycoon David Ogilvy said it best: "If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarves, but if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants." Simply put, accepting mediocrity only increases the probability that talented people will leave.

Related: If You Want to Keep Your Best Talent From Quitting, Don't Make One of These Mistakes.

3. Lower the stress

Teams pursuing ambitious goals will inevitably go through difficult times. A good leader acknowledges the reality of a situation and works with a team to find a satisfying and calming path forward. Sometimes this can mean using the Socratic method and playing devil's advocate to help someone find an answer. Other times, it can mean being more hands-on to best handle a process.

4. Give and solicit feedback

A good leader understands that growth doesn't happen without feedback. It can be daunting to have a direct conversation, but there's a higher cost if an issue balloons because an employee never had the chance to course-correct. And, don't forget that feedback isn't a one-way street: The strongest leaders make it a point to collect it in order to improve. Making this a regular and two-way process takes the fear out of it and lets people (including yourself) grow.

5. Create accountability

An effective leader understands what he signed up for as well as the timeframes in which to get it done. She or he owns both successes and failures and expects the same in return. Strong outcomes spring from shared accountability.

Related: The 4 Roles of Accountability Within Your Company

6. Anticipate the future

As Wayne Gretzky famously said, "You have to skate to where the puck is going." It's a business trope, yes, but it's also accurate. Good leaders understand today's reality, but plan for tomorrow's — the coming months and years. Failure to anticipate is one of the most common stressors and downfalls for a new leader.

7. Invest in learning and development

There was a point when we didn't know how to do the job we have today. A successful leader recognizes the potential of those in their orbit, and invests in them. It's simple, actually: Education and motivation lead to competence; competence and passion lead to mastery; and mastery of one's craft is one of life's greatest rewards. Invest in your team, and it'll pay dividends down the line. As former Starbucks CEO and chairman Howard Schultz said, "Treating employees benevolently shouldn't be viewed as an added cost that cuts into profits, but as a powerful energizer that can grow the enterprise into something far greater than one leader could envision."

Related: Accelerate Self-Motivated Employee Upskilling With Web 3.0 Rewards

8. Communicate clearly

We live in a digital world. Innovation has made life more straightforward, but has also raised newer obstacles. Written text, whether in prose or quick Slack messages, can be interpreted in different ways, so always speak and write plainly and concisely. Use specific language with real examples to drive messages home. Pay attention in your staff meetings and ensure you pass information to your direct reports with context. Help everyone understand the big and little picture.

9. Encourage honest debate

Surrounding yourself with people from different backgrounds paves the way for a diverse set of perspectives and naturally brings about friendly (and at times not so friendly) debate. Aim always to use data or logic when sharing your perspective. Good leaders should be delighted when the best idea wins, regardless of who offered it. Encourage questions, show curiosity and follow threads. Everyone brings a different lens, and the group will become smarter if it understands what each person is seeing.

10. Squelch politics

The best leaders abhor office politics, which was memorably defined by Andreesen Horowitz's co-founder and general partner Ben Horowitz as "advancing [your] careers or agenda by means other than merit or contributions." Don't be this person. Politics are toxic and can quickly dismantle the company culture you've worked hard to build.

Like anything in life, commitment goes a long way. The only limit is the one you set for yourself.

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