Strong leadership is intrinsically linked to business success, yet many organisations fall short of their potential because they do not equip their staff with the necessary skills to lead effectively. While all leaders have the ability to manage, only a small portion of managers have the necessary skills to become strong leaders, leaders with edge, and this is stifling business growth.

I recently sat down and had a discussion with a CEO of a large multinational company. He was explaining to me how at first he thought it was a compliment when others said how ‘nice’ his staff were. However in reality, and something that soon dawned on him…his people were too nice. They had a soft touch, were missing opportunities, and were being taken advantage of. From our discussion, it was concluded that he needed ‘leaders with edge.’

So what is a leader with edge?

In my opinion there a 7 characteristics and traits that a leader with edge must have…

1. Self Awareness and awareness of others 

Although it is probably one of the least discussed leadership competencies, self-awareness is possibly one of the most valuable, and truly shapes a leader with edge.

It’s easy to see how pretending to know everything when you don’t can create situations that can be problematic for your entire organisation. On the other hand, when you take responsibility for what you don’t know, you benefit both yourself and your organisation.

On an interpersonal level, self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses can net you the trust of others and increase your credibility – both of which will increase your leadership effectiveness.

On an organisational level, the benefits are even greater. When you acknowledge what you have yet to learn, you’re modeling that in your organisation. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers, to make mistakes and most importantly, to ask for help. These are all characteristics of an organisation that is constantly learning and springboards to innovation and agility – two hallmarks of high performing organisations.

Remember, organisations benefit far more from leaders who take responsibility for what they don’t know than from leaders who pretend to know it all. Self-awareness and being aware of others is therefore a vital trait for a truly effective leader.

2. Ability to challenge – have ‘difficult’ conversations

When handled calmly and with respect for the other person, even the most challenging conversations can lead to an improved state of affairs for all involved.

When you practice the art of handling difficult conversations, you learn valuable lessons about interpersonal communication that can be applied in many different circumstances. In addition, your ability to influence others grows, and so does their respect for you.

It’s about having the ability to challenge, but not let the person you’re engaging with feel threatened. Difficult conversations happen all the time. A leader with edge needs to be able to conduct these conversations so that all involved feel their views have been heard, and will be actioned, but also the recipient respects and appreciates your response.

3. Skills to negotiate with a clear direction, focus and purpose

Almost every aspect of the business landscape is negotiable. In recessionary times, this can work in your favour, as the pressure to get the most out of relationships and realise value from deals is higher than ever.

So whether you’re faced with suppliers looking to hike prices, clients extending their payment terms, fixing a price for new business or dealing with an employee’s request for a pay rise, understanding the art of negotiation will considerably increase your chances of a positive outcome. Being able to negotiate with a clear direction, focus and purpose is a must have characteristic of a leader with edge.

4. Resilience and resourcefulness

A good dose of resilience has been essential for most individuals and businesses over the past few years.

Churchill once remarked: “If you are going through hell, keep going.” 

The sense of keeping going is important, but so is being smart and imaginative. A leader with edge won’t just stand there like a punch-drunk Rocky, soaking up the punishment. They will be able to recover quickly from difficult situations, being resourceful and getting results. 

5. Adaptable and be able to deal with ambiguity

In the business world, a rigid ‘5-year plan’ is no longer appropriate – the world is simply moving too fast. Leaders with edge will have to learn to operate in a context where there are constantly shifting priorities as organisations adapt to survive, or to pursue opportunities.

It’s difficult to feel you’re acting without a detailed map, but it’s the world we now live in. While dealing with ambiguity, you’ll need to develop a greater ability to analyse and adapt to the environment as it changes, which it most certainly will. Things move at a rate that’s sometimes hard to comprehend: good leaders need to be able to match that speed of change. However, while they’re dealing with ambiguity, and demonstrating adaptability, they will also need to improve their decision-making processes and make swifter, more accurate commercial judgments. To do that, they will have to get better at collecting and understanding information, and see their priorities and goals in the context of the organisation’s goals. 

6. Confidence and presence to engage at all levels and in all environments

Self-confidence is the fundamental basis from which leadership grows. Trying to teach leadership without first building confidence is like building a house on a foundation of sand. It may have a nice coat of paint, but it is ultimately shaky at best.

Not only does confidence allow you to make the tough decisions that people expect from a leader with edge but it’s reassuring to your employees. It allows you to lead meetings with authority, to accept frankness and open communication, and the greater they perceive your force of will, the more faith they will have in your company and its mission.

7. Mental toughness

Mental toughness does not mean to be ‘tough’ – it means the above qualities of resilience, tenacity and flexibility to achieve best possible outcomes in often difficult and complex situations.

Mental toughness is a term commonly used in sports — a term many begin to hear from coaches in youth athletics. Tuning out the noise or pressure and performing to potential in an otherwise difficult situation is what makes fans admire the most astute professional athlete.

It’s not that the cyclist was able to cycle a record lap, but the fact that he or she was able to do so under the tight and uncomfortable circumstances of the situation. While sports stars grab the majority of headlines in the mental toughness arena, this trait has become essential for leaders to be successful in business as well.

In essence, a leader with edge is sharp with distinction, and has a clear sense of purpose. Have you got what it takes to be a leader with edge?