What makes a great leader?


Want to be a leader? It's different than being a manager, or even an entrepreneur. An axiom I've seen recently on several Websites is that entrepreneurs are inspired, but leaders inspire. There's a whole lot more to it than that, but I like that differentiation, and it's not a bad place to start.

The idea here is that leadership involves its own skill set and some very distinct characteristics. Some people come by these naturally, other people learn them, and some people try to learn them but never do. Still others don't want to learn them at all.

One problem I've seen is people who have natural leadership skills but don't know how to direct them consistently. Hence, they may experience tremendous success on one project but flail all over the place on another. It's been my experience that a little coaching or mentoring helps these people gain clarity on what's working and why.

Whether you're already in a leadership role, want to aspire to leadership, or just want to be able to recognize a good leader when you see one, here's what I think are the main attributes of a great leader.

First up, one should be aware of what I call core leadership responsibilities. In any organization, a leader is responsible for the vision. This includes the ideas of where the organization could or should be going. This is not to say that other people should not have those ideas, but ultimately it's the leaders who are responsible for them.

Next up is what I call the horizon, or what we can expect to happen in the near and/or distant future. This includes the economic horizon, the political horizon, business trends, etc. Again, this isn't to say people who aren't in leadership roles shouldn't be looking at the horizon, but ultimately it's those in leadership who are responsible for being aware of what's coming down the pike.

Third in the core responsibilities of a leader is the organization's capabilities. In other words, leaders are ultimately responsible for what their organizations can do, so they must be aware of the limitations and capabilities of just about everything: Equipment, personnel, and even policies and procedures.

The above list forms the core of what a leader is given, but leaders have to do something with all of that in order to be truly effective. Let's start with the ideas and the horizon.

Great leaders don't hold their vision and ideas close to their chest. They share them with people throughout the organization. Whether one-on-one, in small groups, formally or informally, leaders not only share their thoughts on the horizon and the ideas of where the company could or should be going, but they actively solicit feedback on those thoughts.

Picture the leader as the pilot of the plane, flying at 35,000 feet. At the height, the leader sees a lot of forests, so his/her perspective is generally "forest." What's tough to figure out at that altitude is what's going on down in the forest, and that's why the feedback is so critical.

Think of it this way: Just because a person is in a leadership role doesn't mean he or she is omniscient. Great leaders seek feedback, and based on what they learn, they must often make adjustments. Not seeking feedback, or not making adjustments if the feedback indicates it's necessary, is an all-too-common reason for leadership failure.

The third item in our core responsibilities list is organizational capabilities, and a great leader is one who actively seeks to enable and advance them. In most cases, this means approving and funding such efforts.

While seeking feedback, leaders will often learn about new equipment, software, or skills that could help advance the organization toward its goals. A great leader considers these – usually by way of a cost-benefit analysis – and then moves forward to implement when feasible.

If you desire to be a great leader and these skills do not come naturally to you (and very rarely do they come naturally to anybody), may I recommend becoming a student of these skills.

Obviously, these are only the core of what it means to be a great leader. Much more must also be learned, and for that I refer to you the myriad leadership books on the market. But there's a lot of "leadership fluff" out there, so beware what you buy. No need to waste your time and money.

One book I highly recommend is " Execution Revolution" by Gary Harpst. I recommend this book because it moves beyond the characteristics of leadership and explains the specific actions required of leaders to take a company to its optimal level of performance – and keep it there.

Use what I outlined above as personal practices, and what Harpst says as corporate practices. Together, I believe these are at the core of great leadership.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.