Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously opined, “I know it when I see it” in an attempt to deal with a controversial topic that was (and remains) highly subjective. While Justice Stewart wasn’t talking about effective leadership, he might as well have been.

Most of us can think of examples of leaders we’ve admired and readily describe what we observed and liked about their styles. We can do the same for the leaders we don’t hold in such high regard. In my experience, the leaders we deem as good or great exhibit varying degrees of all four of the following ingredients:

  1. Competence—there’s no question about their knowledge or abilities
  2. Credibility—they are believable
  3. Connection—they meet people on their terms
  4. Caring—they genuinely care about the individuals and the cause

Certainly, I’ve seen leaders who lacked one or more of these create good results for a time. I once worked for a jerk who seemed to not care about the people who worked for him. Nor did he strive to connect with them. He produced excellent results until times got tough and the people he didn’t care about weren’t there for him.

Overall, however, the best product managers, project managers, general managers, supervisors, sales managers, and every other leader I can think of who created success over a long period all exhibited the Four C’s described above.

Let’s break the Four C’s down from the perspective of how we assess them in a leader.

The Four C’s of Effective Leadership

1. Competence—What do you know that I should respect?

Our perception of a leader’s competence is an essential first filter in assessing them. The more technical or dangerous the environment, the more emphasis we place on our view of their expertise. We’ll put up with some pretty bad behaviors—within limits—if we perceive someone knows their stuff.

If we perceive specific technical competence is missing, we cast a wider net looking for expertise in managing or administering and strength with credibility, connecting and caring. One highly regarded manager didn’t hide the reality that he served a group of technical geniuses and couldn’t match their acumen. “My job is to keep the path ahead clear for them, not to compete with them,” he offered. 

2. Credibility—Does your do match your tell? 

In the case of a new manager or leader in our environment, if they pass the competence test in our minds, we quickly look for evidence they are believable. Think of those leaders you’ve encountered who articulate ideas and visions persuasively, and then are absolute zeroes when it comes to backing the words with actions. It doesn’t take long for us to assess someone as not credible.

Alternatively, the manager meeting her team for the first time who quickly backs up her ideas and talk with actions and support is someone we get excited about early in the relationship.

One manager used my 3W’s approach for getting to know her new team and made it a point to execute immediately on the easy asks and to follow-up in detail with the group on the broader issues. Her approach quickly established her as credible and earned her admission to the last two of the Four C’s: connection and credibility.

3. Connection—Do you make me feel felt? 

The feel felt phrasing is awkward, but highly relevant when it comes to assessing connection. Our empathy detectors are sensitive, and we’re powerfully and positively impacted by the perception that the person in charge sees us as an individual who matters. I call this the Connection-Effect, and I learned it from a man named Clarence.

Clarence was the leader of one of our distributors in one of my many corporate lives. He was viewed as a significant industry figure not only for the success of his organization but for his approach in engaging with everyone he encountered.

When Clarence arrived at one of our conferences, you could feel the energy in the room change. He projected a “You’re here and I’m glad!” attitude, and made sure to greet every person in the room as if they were the most important person there. Clarence made everyone feel felt.

The act of investing yourself in acknowledging and connecting with an individual is a powerful leadership behavior. Alternatively, projecting an I’m busy, and you’re a distraction attitude shoots the connection-effect in the foot.

4. Caring—Are you concerned about my safety and success? 

The notion of caring may be the softest of the leadership attributes here, yet in my experience, it’s the difference between good and great.

From the research into leading in extremis (dangerous) situations, we know that the perception the person in charge cares for our safety and success is a significant factor in the trust equation. If we perceive they view us as expendable or only as a resource, we’re less inclined to trust and definitely not inclined to pursue high-performance.

Much as we perceive the connection-effect described above, we know whether someone cares for our success and safety. The leaders we move mountains for in pursuit of larger goals are the ones who are invested in our security and success. While you might connote caring with weakness, in my opinion, it takes great strength of character for a leader to be vulnerable enough to show they care.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Developing as an effective leader takes time, experience, and ample mistakes. As you navigate on your leadership journey, it pays to understand how people assess you. The perception of your competence is essential, however, the view on your credibility, willingness to connect, and that you care are all game-changers for your success. 

Art's Signature