What People Look for in Great Leaders

Leadership, CEO, Stability, Trust, Compassion, Hope

As a long-time student on the subject of leadership, I feel privileged in my role at Lockheed Martin to have a front row seat in the world’s greatest leadership classroom: the U.S. Military. Our men and women in uniform are a disciplined force, united in purpose and values, selflessly answering America’s call to duty. Building, supporting and motivating such a magnificent organization clearly requires outstanding leaders—people who have the vision, the intellect, the energy and the emotional intelligence to move other people toward a goal.

Today, the U.S. military is facing a lot of change, including the drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, a shrinking defense budget, and the Department of Defense’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. Lockheed Martin is facing these same changes. With this in mind, I started wondering if times of great change require something different from leaders. Do the same qualities and characteristics of good leaders suffice in turbulent times, or is something new required?

My thoughts led me to some powerful research from the Gallup organization* that is especially relevant to leading through times of great change. The findings are instructive whether one is leading an aerospace and global security company or a branch of the military. The research focused specifically on the perspectives of followers, and asked them to describe what they want leaders to contribute to their lives.

Gallup found that individuals expect four things from leaders: stability, trust, compassion and hope.

The results, while fascinating, are not surprising. Let’s take a closer look at each:


To ensure stability, it’s important that leaders look beyond today and consider what’s over the horizon. This means taking action early to shape the organization and equip it to respond and succeed in a new environment. These actions sometimes involve making very tough decisions that impact employees and their families. I’ve found that when these decisions are necessary, keeping employees informed is critical to stability. Information is empowering. When employees can anticipate change and plan accordingly, they are less worried, less distracted, and more engaged in creating a positive future.


Trust is the basis of all positive relationships. The foundation for trust has to be earned every day by the high standards you set, the energy and enthusiasm you show, the steps you take to develop your people, and the sincerity you demonstrate through words and actions.

Again, communication is crucial. It’s important to communicate transparently, honestly and in a timely manner. Bad news doesn’t get better with age. In particular, I’m a fan of person-to-person communication. It enables employees to look you in the eyes, ask questions, and walk away with trust in your leadership and an understanding of your priorities and vision for the future.


Compassion is more than just treating people as you like to be treated. It’s about treating people as they like to be treated. To do that, you need to genuinely know your employees. You need to understand who they are and what matters in their lives. You need to actively listen when they share their concerns and respond with empathy.

Compassion isn’t just for tough times. It’s for all times.

When you build a culture of compassion, it flows in all directions. It reinforces the importance of confronting tough issues rather than shying away or insulating yourself. Leaders are always thinking about the well-being of those they lead, not themselves.


In times of great change, leaders inspire hope. I believe you inspire hope by embarking on missions that matter with a vision that motivates. As a leader, you must help people see where change is heading, the ideal future state when change is successful, and the roles people will play going forward. In my experience, the result will be a fully engaged, committed, and hopeful workforce – and a stronger company – for having weathered the storm.

Stability, trust, compassion, and hope. These are the qualities that people look for in great leaders, and they are crucial to leading through changing times. Simply put, people want their leaders to give them what they need to have confidence in the future. Whether you’re leading a small team, a branch of the U.S. military or a major corporation, being a great leader means understanding people and what they need from you.

How about you? In an uncertain, dynamic environment, I’m interested to hear what you want from your leaders. – Marillyn Hewson

*Rath, Tom & Barry Conchie, Strength Based Leadership. New York: Gallup Press, 2008.

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