Four Key Leadership Qualities

Leaders exist at all levels of the organization whether they are in formal management positions or not. Leaders are the people whom others look define strategies and guide them to solutions to problems. Leaders possess four key qualities: strategic thinking, executing, influencing others, and relationship building. Let’s look at each.

Strategic thinking

Strategic thinking is identifying and developing new and unique opportunities for the employer to create value for customers. Strategic thinkers do not come up with all the answers themselves but do promote creative dialogue among employees who can affect a company’s strategy and direction. Strategic thinking involves understanding the fundamental drivers of a company and identifying opportunities for creating value through the development and growth of new businesses. Leadership may involve challenging current assumptions about the employer’s value proposition. (The value proposition is the unique value a firm offers its customers. It is why your customers prefer to do business with your firm and not its competitors.)

Strategic thinking must take into account: your firm’s strengths and how they can be used to create a competitive advantage. It also requires understanding your employer’s weaknesses and how they can leave the company vulnerable to competitors.

The result of strategic thinking is an action statement defining the goal you want the company to achieve. For example, when I headed my employer’s pulp and paper chemicals team, our action statement was “Become the number 1 supplier of biodegradable chemicals that remove ink from pulped wastepaper for paper recycling.”

To be a good strategic thinker, you must develop the capability to clearly define your objectives and develop a plan to achieve each objective. Thus, for each objective, you’ll need to establish a set of tasks that will accomplish that objective.  Developing a list of resources and a timeline to accomplish each objective is also important. Using the basic principles of project management (1) is very helpful. The technique of mind mapping (2) to develop objectives plans to achieve them, and explain these plans and objectives to others can also be quite useful.

Your plans need to be flexible to account for changing circumstances. Using project management is an excellent way to do this. If you set up your plan using project management, project milestones can be occasions to review progress, assess the current situation and change plans as needed. Milestones are the completion of a major task in your project.


Having developed plans to generate and grow new businesses, you must now execute the plans. In some cases you can do this working alone or with a couple of technicians. For other plans, you may need to assemble a multidisciplinary project team. To execute major efforts, more than one team may need to be assembled.

Project management is essential to keep projects on schedule and preventing them from drifting off course (1, 3, 4). This requires effective communications between the project manager and team members and among the between team members. Proper planning, establishing project milestones and smart staffing can keep projects on schedule.

Influencing others

The old workplace style of command and control leadership is decreasingly productive in today’s fluid work environments with project team members reporting to different managers, team members often working for different organizations (suppliers, customers, consultants, etc.) and coworkers increasingly scattered across different work locations.

To get one’s plans and proposals accepted and obtain budgetary and other needed support, you must influence others. This means developing persuasive arguments to get what you want and be able to get others to accept these arguments in a nonabrasive way. Often you must gain the support of people who do not report to you but are your peers in other parts of the company or even are your superiors (5, 6).  Negotiating skills are often essential in doing this. It is essential to approach negotiations with the goal of developing win-win agreements. Start negotiations with your goal clearly in mind but be willing to compromise to get most of what you want.

Relationship building

Another essential skill is relationship building. When you are trying to get people to accept your proposals, good working relationships with stakeholders can reduce their resistance to change. However, many chemists, because of the pressures of routine activities, do not devote adequate time to building beneficial relationships with coworkers. How can you do so?

Listen to your coworkers and colleagues to learn what their goals and skills are. When you identify relevant information they may be interested in, send it to them. Respond when coworkers when ask you for your opinions or feedback. Above all, reciprocate by helping others when they help you. Be sure to thank them for the efforts in helping you.

Building relationships in this way is enlightened self interest. When senior managers make promotion decisions, they usually consult their colleagues. In choosing between two equally qualified colleagues, they’ll usually pick the individual with whom they feel they can work best.


  1. J.K. Borchardt, “Project Management for Teams,” Today’s Chemist at Work, (May 2002).
  2. J,K, Borchardt, “Mind Mapping,” Lab Manager, (October 7, 2010).
  3. J.K. Borchardt, “Invention, Innnovation and Lab Management,” Lab Manager, (January 2009).
  4. J.K. Borchardt, “Staying on Schedule,” Lab Manager, (August 2009).
  5. Alan R. Cohen and David L. Brandford, Influence without Authority, John Wiley & Sons, 2nd edition (2005).
  6. Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp, Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, HarperBusiness (1999).

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

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