AJ Singh on the Makings of a Great Leader

Written by AJ Singh, senior vice president and head of Global New Business and Underwriting at MetLife.

As a leader of change, I’m often asked to define what leadership is, how being a leader differs from being a manager, and what one should do on a day-to-day basis to become a great leader. For this piece, I wanted to take a more personal rather than academic view on what drives leadership.

I’ve learned a lot about leadership through my own experience in the military, working for great companies and having the privilege of being mentored by people I consider great leaders.

I believe great leaders demonstrate the ability to:

  • Clearly define a strategy and vision for people they lead
  • Build a great team
  • Have strong working knowledge of what their team does
  • Constantly learn and be open to new ideas
  • Be transparent and fair
  • Have the courage to stand up for their values and make difficult decisions

Defining a strategy and vision requires strong critical thinking and the ability to convey that thinking through simple and effective communication. A leader can’t do everything. The goal is to build an effective team who works together to translate the vision and goals into actions and success. A leader needs to be able to identify the right talent, dedicate time to coach and develop this talent and set the right incentive structures. This leads to a more energized team, maximizing their collective energy to perform above and beyond the individual level.

Leaders can’t be subject matter experts in every topic or area under their responsibility. They need to have a good working knowledge to ask the right questions and the conceptual understanding to make the right decisions. This requires a leader to spend time with their teams “in the trenches” — much more than in their offices and meeting rooms. In military terms it’s called “leading from the front.” In the same manner, a leader should also be constantly learning. The desire to ask questions and be a student of the business creates an environment of self-learning and continuous improvement.

Fairness and transparency from a leader can go a long way in aligning their team, even around difficult decisions. Fairness allows each team member to experiment, take risks and make decisions with the comfort that they will not be penalized for a decision made with the right intentions. Fairness also builds credibility and allows team members to work hard, knowing that they will be evaluated by the quality of their work and not by the strength of their personal relationships. Transparency in why a decision is made helps align the team.

Lastly and above all, a leader needs to be courageous. As Al Pacino taught us in the final scene of the film, Scent of a Woman, while it’s convenient to take the easy path in life, it takes a lot of guts and courage to take the right one. Leadership is not about what is convenient or popular, but what is right. And while this may require a person to stand up against the flow of popular beliefs or opinions of colleagues and superiors, it’s the path that leads to greatness.