Retired IBM V.P. of Leadership’s five traits to being a good leader

Photo by Ashley Snyder

Room 150 in the Fine Arts Building was filled with spectators from as young as a few months to as old as senior citizens, last Tuesday night, curiously flipping through the programs, eagerly awaiting to hear what Polaris Lecture Series guest speaker Michael Markovits had to say on the subject of leadership.

Leadership, as most people know, is a key ability that people need to have in order to move up the ranks in their career and become a successful member of an industry or business. There are so many different definitions of what makes a good leader and many people end up focusing on the wrong aspects of leadership, which hinders them from becoming the best leader they can be. On February 15, the Polaris Lecture Series brought Michael Markovits, recently retired Vice President at IBM, to offer insight on the qualities needed for effective leaders, more specifically on a global scale. Michael Markovits is a prime example of a true leader in America, having spent over twenty-five years at General Electric and IBM; his expertise improved the efficiency of all members within those companies.
“Even though I am here to talk about Global Leadership I think what I know applies directly towards the challenges you face as a student, or as a member of the administration at the university, or really at any organization you may be a part of outside in the community,” Markovits said.

After a quick introduction, Markovits suggested that everyone turn to the person next to them and discuss on what their definitions of a good leader are. After several minutes of active conversation, he asked the audience what traits they came up with that exemplify a great leader. Responses included prudence, passion, integrity, and empathy, among many others.

“While those are all important traits, I am going to give you my personal preferences of five traits that I feel distinguishes a typical leader from an outstanding leader,” Markovits said.

The first vital trait, Markovits said, is the ability to be a good learner.

“There is the famous question: Are leaders born or made? Everyone is born to be a potential leader. Everyone has the potential, they just need to have that potential nurtured, which will in turn guide them to experimentation, which will help them gain experience over time.”

Markovits’ second key point was that great leaders have great courage. Markovits asked the audience if they thought the current generation was more courageous than previous generations, and the majority voted no. He agreed, pointing to the conformity that society often encourages.

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“One thing about being courageous doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be strong. It doesn’t mean you have to hide all your worries. Sometimes it’s useful and actually builds collective courage in a team to let them know what your anxieties are.”

The third is the ability to influence others. People need to learn to speak their minds and not hesitate to tell their bosses their opinions.  Your opinion is important, as is how you express it.  One mistake that people do make is telling their boss outright they are wrong. Even if they are, this method will cause tension between the two, and a negative atmosphere is never good for business.

“A method I have found that is more useful for handling disagreements is to first ask questions. Why do you think that? What’s your rationale? What do you think are the benefits of your decision? What these questions allow the other person to do is think out loud and potentially reevaluate their position with new thoughts of their own.”

The fourth quality that makes a great leader is grace under pleasure. Markovits gave an example of a previous CEO of G.E. He had just been appointed to the position on September 10, 2001, and flew to New York that night. He woke up on September 11, 2001: he was far away from home, and far away from his office, there were people that worked for the company in the Twin Towers, and the repercussions of the event were already spreading through the GE network.

“You are away from home, you have no family, or any personnel. So what do you do? He stayed calm. He collected information. He involved the right people from across his team and he made the right decisions when decisions needed to be made. He didn’t make those decisions prematurely.”

The final trait that Markovits felt exceptional leaders should have is a good cultural awareness. Business leaders in today’s top industries are required to travel outside the borders to other countries. Many of those that do have the chance to experience other cultures, do not even take the opportunity to learn anything at all.

“Cultural awareness or cultural literacy is the knowledge or lack of knowledge of other cultures. Global leaders address people worldwide. Now there is the additional dynamic of interacting with people across countries. The first step to learning about other cultures is knowing your own culture. Because we are the greatest melting pot, many of us have been taught to adapt and actually lose connection to our own culture.”

In the close of his presentation Markovits remarked that even though these five traits are his preference in leaders. Depending on the situation, a person has to think independently what kind of leader they need to be. Everyone has the ability to be a good leader, people just need to take a chance and prove themselves in order to get up the ranks in life.

“To solve the complex problems we face in the world we need more and more effective leadership.”

UAA’s distinguished Polaris Lecture Series was established in 1980 to bring accomplished members of society to UAA. Each lecture covers a vast variety of subjects that are open to students, faculty, staff, and community members.