I’ve recently had the good fortune to engage with a life-science technology company in need of strategic guidance. For a consultant, the experience was the stuff of which dreams are made.

The leadership team has been a pleasure to work with. They’re competent, grounded, and transparent. They’re open to an outside perspective, even from someone as acerbic as yours truly. And they’re willing to make hard decisions and take bold steps in the name of the company’s long-term success.

At this point, I would not bet against them. And I definitely would not want to be one of their competitors.

I’d love to say that most of my experience with executives and business leaders left me feeling similarly optimistic about the future of their companies, but then I’d be lying. Sadly, the opposite is true. And the reason is that most are not at all like the folks I’ve been working with.

Whether you run a corporation, a business, or your own career, you’ll need the four characteristics I found at the helm of that company if you want to go places. They’re not flashy qualities, but they do portend good things to come, and in a big way.

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Be competent.

In a world full of over-hyped personal brands and disingenuous virtual personas, a word like “competent” doesn’t get the respect it deserves. These days, everything and everyone has to be awesome, insanely great, or at least remarkable to get over the noise and get our attention.

That’s not just unfortunate, it’s misguided. Competence is the first thing most executives and business leaders look for in up-and-comers. It’s one of the highest compliments I can give anyone in the working world. And it’s essential to business success. More than anything, you must be competent.

Be grounded.

I’ve seen more careers and companies brought down by leaders with grandiose visions and magical thinking than any other cause. Don’t get me wrong. Vision is a good thing, but it must have some basis in reality. Likewise, it’s great to reach for the stars, as long as you also keep your feet planted firmly on the ground.

Case in point, Dan Price, the CEO of credit card processing company Gravity Payments who suddenly decided to raise the minimum salary of his 120 employees to $70,000 over a three-year period. To be fair, the entrepreneur has done a commendable job growing his Seattle-based company from zero to $150 million in sales … right up to the point where he flew off the rails.

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The move greatly diminishes incentives for achievement and advancement and there’s a very good chance it will bankrupt the firm. Nevertheless, Price has high hopes his utopia dream will come true. I just hope he doesn’t stay up all night waiting for Santa to come down the chimney on Christmas.

Be open.

Some companies keep their collective lips sealed for good reason. At Apple and Trader Joe’s, secrecy is a competitive advantage. That’s fine, as long as you don’t limit information flow in the opposite direction or among your management team.

When it comes to strategizing and decision-making, everything’s got to be on the table. To make smart decisions – and that’s what running a company is all about – business leaders and executives have to be willing to look in the mirror and face what they see.

But there are times when we’re too close to a situation to see what’s right in front of us. Other times inertia has a funny way of dragging us along for the ride. That’s why it’s important to be open to an independent, outside perspective. Sometimes, that’s the only way we’re ever going to face the truth.

Be brave.

It’s easy to play it safe, so that’s what the vast majority of us do throughout our lives. That’s not a bad thing, as long as your expectations are consistent with that. If you set the bar low, that’s all you can expect to achieve.

If, on the other hand, you want to be successful and accomplish great things in life, you have to be willing to make tough decisions that put yourself and others at risk when your gut tells you it’s the right thing to do.

Not only is that hard, it’s terrifying. But being brave in the face of fear is the mark of a true leader. When I first spoke with the life-science company’s CEO, she said she wanted her team to be brave. I remember thinking, if she has the courage to back up that statement with action, her people will respond in kind.

That’s exactly what happened, and it was a beautiful thing to see.

Be competent. Be grounded. Be open. Be brave.

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