What do you think is the most important trait of an effective leader? This is a time-honored question asked in the halls of academia, written in the prose of leadership journals, and pontificated over during office coffee breaks. Widely accepted answers typically revolve around the usual suspects: vision, good communication skills, integrity, confidence, humility, decisiveness, etc. It’s certainly hard to argue against any of those responses and it’s nearly impossible to pick just one. But, if you had to narrow it down to the most important trait, what would it be?
I believe equanimity is the single most important trait of an effective leader. Don’t worry if you had to look up the definition, I did too. Over the course of my life, from childhood team sports, through my military career, and into corporate America, the most effective leaders I’ve witnessed all possessed the same vibe. It’s the singular trait that threads itself through my most respected leaders, all from diverse backgrounds and across varying contexts. Until recently I couldn’t put a single word to it, and I described it more as a ‘feeling’ that the leader projected. The pandemic gave me some time to ponder this indescribable ‘something’ and it brought me to the word equanimity.
Equanimity is defined as mental calmness, composure, level-headedness, and evenness of temper across all situations, good and bad. A leader has the power to make or break a single person, a team, or a company with her actions, behavior, and spoken words. Often, it is in moments of heightened emotion that we look to our leaders for guidance and direction. Whether it’s a minor setback, a major victory, or a painful failure, the leader’s initial response will ripple across an organization at the speed of light. Whether through direct observation of the leader’s immediate actions or the days later buzz amongst subordinates, everyone is bound to find out how the boss reacted. And that initial response generally sets the tone for how the larger team feels and responds.
I think back to my High School Cross Country coach, who would calmly celebrate our great races with a high five and a well-timed hug, followed immediately by our plans for our next practice. It was just enough celebration that we knew he was proud of us, so much so that we wanted to practice even harder for the next race. I remember one of my first Flight Commander’s who watched me ‘flail and fail’ several times learning a certain skill flying in the F-15E. I felt under a spotlight as if I was the first pilot in the history of the F-15E to make this mistake, something I thought would be the end of my career flying fighters…only to have him put it in context, factually break down my error and its impact, and offer a path forward. His calm and confidence gave me calm and confidence. I’ve been on high-performing elite teams that have failed major Air Force inspections, often a career-derailing event for a leader, only to see that same leader respond in a measured way, after careful thought, and with an increased level of commitment and determination for us to get it right the second time.
A leader’s ability to first display equanimity, in any situation, sets the tone for everyone’s follow-on actions. I firmly believe an ‘equanimity first’ behavior pattern is what then empowers and enables an effective leader to display those other widely admired leadership traits like vision, good communication skills, integrity, confidence, humility, decisiveness, etc. Equanimity is about presence, poise, self-control, and self-awareness. To be clear, strengthening your equanimity muscle does not come easily. It takes a practiced mindset to look at any situation from a bird’s eye view, or better yet a pilot’s view, and remain level-headed, composed, and unflappable. When a leader is able to consistently demonstrate equanimity, their influence becomes much more powerful, more far-reaching, and more beneficial to the larger organization. Equanimity can create an unshakeable bond between leader and team, and that, my friends, is priceless.