What makes a strong leader—in the insurance industry or in life?

Mario P. Vitale, CEO of Aspen Insurance, answered that question at the Annual Insurance Executives Conference on Dec. 4, 2014. In speaking about “Leadership and the Next Generation” Vitale noted that he is “very passionate” about inspiring the next generation. He reminded the audience that the current knowledge base is retiring and not being replaced fast enough.

Vitale also said that he never had a bad boss, which was received with some skepticism by his audience. He explained that he learned a lot from those who made mistakes as well as those who did things right.

Building on the lessons he’s learned along the way, Vitale has developed 12 key points for impactful leadership.

1. If you want to be a leader, you have to lead from the front.

Gen. George S. Patton was a great example of someone who led his troops from the front line, Vitale said. He made sure his troops had the best training and tools to get the job done. Vitale noted that he made his best decisions when he too was on the front line, visiting small offices, faraway offices, brokers, or the information technology department.

2. You can only lead if other people are prepared to follow you.

Your team has to have a strong rapport with you and with each other. They have to understand what you want before they can help to achieve the goals. Empathy is especially important, Vitale said. For his team, he values people with a strong emotional IQ.

3. Leaders must know what they stand for, and communicate those principles through behaviors and actions.

You have to understand your own strengths and weaknesses before you can be a strong leader—and we all have them, whether we acknowledge them or not. According to Vitale it’s important to be viewed as authentic in what you say and do. You also have to be prepared to take responsibility when necessary and be seen doing it.

Leadership vision graphic

4. Leaders must set a clear vision.

You have to have a clear vision of your goal, even if you adjust it along the way. This vision is what keeps people following you, Vitale explained. You also have to be able to explain that vision to all the stakeholders in your company from the most junior employee to the biggest investor.

5. Leaders must recognize that people and relationships are as important as tasks.

It’s especially important for CEOs to build relationships with outside members of the board of directors, as well as people inside the company, Vitale said. You can and should ask them to give more—advice, guidance, time, whatever you need.

It’s also important to know when to delegate and when to do it yourself, but you can’t make that choice effectively if you don’t have strong relationships with the people around you.

6. The CEO is also the chief communications officer.

A good leader is a good communicator, Vitale said. The leader must deliver constant, clear messages to the team and to the company. He recommended that leaders deliver those messages in person whenever possible—whether the news is good or bad.

Woman smelling flowers

7. It’s important to manage your own energy.

Leaders are constantly on display and subject to scrutiny, which can lead to high stress levels, but many leaders aren’t aware of it. “Don’t take it out on others when you’re having a bad day,” Vitale advised. Find another way to relieve your stress, perhaps through exercise or taking a few minutes of down time, before heading back to the fray.

8. Surround yourself with smart people who are knowledgeable, reliable, loyal and willing to challenge you.

CEOs often are surrounded by those who believe that their path to success consists of agreeing with everything the CEO wants to do. That can be a recipe for disaster because no one is willing to say “the emperor has no clothes.” If you truly want to be a better leader, Vitale recommended that you hire people who are willing to challenge you—and reinforce that the behavior is acceptable. In some cases, that means changing the corporate culture and encouraging your core team to take risks they might not otherwise be willing to take.

Loyalty is another key trait for your team, according to Vitale. “You need a support system for the bad days,” and people you can count on.

9. Plan for the future.

Remember that you won’t be around forever, so start grooming your successor early in your tenure as leader—whether it’s as a CEO or a mid-level manager. Vitale said that there is too much focus on short-term demands and not enough on long-term strategy. The talent gap presents a problem in succession planning, he pointed out. Baby boomers are retiring and the younger pipeline seems smaller than ever in history.

Good leaders are also good mentors, encouraging young people and diversity in the workforce. “It’s important to make time for this, for example, a one-on-one lunch,” Vitale said. Although a lot of emphasis is placed on grooming millennials, you should spend time diversifying senior positions as well.

Learn from mistakes note on cork board

10. Trust and follow your instincts.

“If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t—so don’t do it!” Vitale said. The best leaders don’t ignore that inner voice that may contradict all the data in front of them.

11. Leaders must set the right tone.

You’ve heard the admonition “lead, follow or get out of the way.” But, Vitale advised that you should never try to do all three at the same time. You should create your own culture and only employ those who believe in it and build it, regardless of their qualities and technical capabilities. You want to have a corporate culture that attracts people who believe in the same things that you do.

12. Accept that we all make mistakes.

No one is perfect, but it’s “imperative” that mistakes are learning lessons, Vitale said. Everyone is reluctant to accept the fact that mistakes are made. When employees are discouraged from admitting mistakes, they become afraid to make decisions or make bad ones, and bad decisions lead to cover-ups.

Good leaders create cultures in which an employee isn’t afraid to admit a mistake. Encourage employees to acknowledge things that go wrong and offer solutions. But this behavior, like all good leadership traits, has to start at the top.

Vitale also encouraged the audience to read the December 2014 issue of National Underwriter Property & Casualty’s feature, “Charity Works.” Giving back to the community in some way is part of team building, he said, and it works for everyone.