Ronald Terwilliger is chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Trammell Crow Residential, the country's largest builder of multifamily housing units.
Jason Nuttle/WPN Ronald Terwilliger is chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Trammell Crow Residential, the country's largest builder of multifamily housing units.

  "Somebody's got to be the adult in the room." That's how my friend Michael Melaugh describes leaders. And he's right. A leader has to make the hard decisions that no one else is able—or has the experience—to make.

Today, leadership is more important than ever. The country is dealing with the biggest financial crisis I have seen in my lifetime. There is no credit availability. The whole country is nervous. In fact, there has been a terrible lack of leadership in this country for many years—a by-product, unfortunately, of our short-term-oriented political system.

Just look at what happened at AIG. Earlier this fall, the New York Times told the story of Joseph J. Cassano, who headed AIG's financial products unit. Cassano pocketed more than $280 million over the past eight years, and although he was terminated this year, he is still being paid $1 million per month as a consultant, according to the Times. Clearly, no one at AIG took responsibility for overseeing operations and limiting corporate risk taking. And that's left all of us with the bill.

Indeed, this is an unprecedented time in our history. And at Trammell Crow Residential, that means my partners and associates need to feel confident that I am aware of what's going on, that I know what to do, and that I am working to eff ectively deal with the issues. The truth is that leaders—particularly in corporations—are typically appointed. And you hope that during tough times, those CEOs and COOs will measure up. People look to their executives as role models—people who can offer direction and guidance on how to conduct yourself, your life, your business.

For nearly 30 years, I have worked at Trammell Crow Residential and watched my staff and my multifamily industry colleagues grow and advance. Based on this experience, here are six traits that I think shape the best multifamily leaders.

1.Walk the Talk. You can't say one thing and act diff erently. If you don't say what you mean and act consistently, then people have no idea how you're going to react to a new situation. If you're all over the map, that's a problem for your organization.

2.Be Upbeat. I respect our company namesake Trammell Crow a great deal. He was a charismatic visionary. As a leader, you have to be upbeat and, at the same time, be realistic. People sense your mood; they are sensitive to whether you say hello to them in the morning: Small things like that are important in earning the respect of your people.

3.Think Strategically. Look ahead. Observe what's going on in the environment, and all the while, keep in mind a perspective of history. In the multifamily industry, that also means you get out there and represent your company at industry gatherings. I've always tried to volunteer my time to provide industry leadership and, at the same time, be a student of the industry.

4.Stay True to Your Gut. Back in the early '90s, the economy was foundering, and I had to undertake the task of rightsizing our organization and positioning the firm for the next upturn. [Equity CEO] Sam Zell told me I should fire all my construction and development people, as there was already an overbuilt market. We didn't do that! I felt it was more important to keep our core team and focus on preserving our core competency, which was rental housing. Had I taken his advice we would not have been able to take Avalon and Gables public in 1993 and 1994, respectively.

5.Treat People Fairly. Run your company as a meritocracy, and reward those who perform consistently. Avoid any kind of discrimination. I think I've learned a lot about camaraderie from sports. In sports, you learn to be a teammate, a good sport, and a good loser (occasionally). And if you're lucky enough to lead a team, you do so by example, inspiration, and action.

6.Train the Next Generation. Spend time with future leaders. Encourage them, share your insights, and bring them along at a proper pace. When you lead by example and give them an opportunity to participate in the business for a period of time, you get the chance to watch people during good times and under adverse circumstances. It's a matter of staying involved with them and working with them and helping them understand what decisions you're making and why.

On a personal level, I have learned that you must strive daily to improve your leadership skills. For instance, I see myself as organized and strategic as well as a good risk manager, but I also know that I am sometimes not as sensitive as I should be to people's feelings and often am not a good listener. I've worked for years on my weaknesses, and it's a daily struggle. This is not to say that you should be everybody's buddy. Your employees are looking to you for leadership, not friendship.

All told, this is an interesting and challenging time to be in the multifamily industry. It will take true leadership to move the economy and the country forward toward a better future. For the time being, however, get your team to work together toward a common goal and common vision, and you'll be surprised at how quickly everyone will come on board and understand the importance of what you're doing.