19 Signs of Executive-Level Leadership

By Bill Murray, NCA, CEO

See the full post on LinkedIn or visit the Coffee Career Center resource page for more leadership tips. 


With thanks to Laura Freebairn-Smith of the Organizational Performance Group, for permission to cite her findings. 

Ensuring that the right organizational leadership is in place is a task that is so challenging that it has spawned an entire industry.

Whether you search the web or pop into an old-school brick-and-mortar bookstore, the amount of advice on offer about “being a leader” is staggering.

One of the reasons that leadership can be a challenging subject is because it pertains to human behavior. A second difficulty relates to things like stylistic differences, gaps between what is said vs. what is done, and self-promotion.

Early in my career I had the good fortune to work for the late Jack Valenti, President, Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). He had been a bomber pilot, was in President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas when the President was assassinated, and served President Johnson in the White House. His leadership style – demanding, fair, aggressive, and smart – was a major factor for his legendary success. I can’t recall that he ever had to remind us that he was our leader – his actions spoke louder than any words.

I was reminded of the challenges surrounding leadership assessment late last month as I watched a presentation at the NCA Coffee Summit. Laura Freebairn-Smith of the Organizational Performance Group (OPG) caught my attention when she summarized her research on the characteristics of organizations with good leaders.

The takeaway? Instead of trying to parse what a leader may say, his or her follow-through, or stylistic differences,  Freebairn-Smith has concluded that well-led organizations all share certain characteristics – good communications, good morale, and 17 others traits.

In other words, you can boil down hundreds of leadership books, dozens of styles, and innumerable case studies to these 19 elements. The beauty of this approach is that it allows boards and leaders to focus on outcomes and impact, using a checklist – one that can be used by human resources professionals, by mid-level managers, by boards – on an ongoing basis, at many levels of an organization.

This list isn’t whimsical. These characteristics were selected as a result of lengthy and rigorous research while she completed a Ph.D. program. It has been peer reviewed, and field tested.

Here are the nineteen characteristics of well led companies, as compiled by Freebairn-Smith as a result of her extensive research.

19 Signs of Organizational Health

  • Communication
  • Productivity
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Promotion
  • Sense of Hierarchy
  • Creativity
  • Teamwork and camaraderie
  • Appropriate use of power
  • Timeliness of decision making
  • Leadership’s energy
  • Decision-making processes
  • Empowerment
  • Supervision and management
  • Dealing with failure
  • Responsibility and accountability
  • Morale
  • Information flow
  • Development and support of employees
  • Financial Health

[“19 Traits” ©2016 Organizational Performance Group; Used by Permission]

What’s particularly interesting about this approach is that it leads to a non-traditional way of assessing leadership – one that barely mentions leadership. Instead of asking, “Is the executive a good leader” and expecting meaningful answers, this approach measures key outcomes in crucial areas across the whole organization.

For leaders, the message is clear: It isn’t what you say or who you quote, it’s what you do – as measured not by the activities you undertake, but the impact you have on your organization.


What does leadership mean in the coffee industry? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Read the full post on LinkedIn.

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