Leadership

What makes a great leader? Who says?

With so much written on the subject every day, becoming a great leader should be easier than it seems. Why is this? Perhaps it has to do with both what sells books as much as what's being written.
What makes one leader great, while another is not?

There's sure no shortage of literature on the subject. At any given time, there are literally hundreds of books available on the subject of leadership. Every month new ones arrive on store shelves. Most magazines feature articles on management and leadership, often with a list of "do's and don'ts". Additionally, there's another entire group of books about the leaders themselves. Biographies, success stories, the odd career collapse are intended to provide the reader with information they can use for their own success.

Educational environments, colleges and specialty organizations offer a lot of training on the subject. There are many courses on leadership in education programs outside of business too: psychology, finance, sociology, history, religion, and even courses like literature and agriculture.

We could build mountains with all the books and magazines published on the subject. So with all this data, why is it so tough for people to answer the question, "what makes a great leader?" I get asked it all the time by my clients. Usually, the person asking is looking for certain styles she or he can use to become more successful.

I have been asked to speak on the subject of leadership and career success at an upcoming meeting of the Project Management Institute. On July 8, I will be delivering the Keynote Address to the annual Career Fair and Business Expo of the Orange County, California, Chapter of the PMI.

It's a subject I've been focused for over 25 years. During those years, I've been very fortunate to have spend time and worked with some truly great CEOs myself. These included the heads of everything from small firms, start-ups, and large brand name organizations like AT&T, General Motors, Cablevision, and DIRECTV. I've also spent time with leaders of government including Bill Clinton and the Jean Chretien when they were leading their respective countries. I've seen and heard the good, the bad and the ugly.

Now - about the question that kicked off this blog: I've learned that the problem with most of what gets written about leadership styles and approaches is that it usually doesn't stand the tests of time. Most books about leaders, or leading companies which may seem appropriate at the time don't provide much guidance just a few years later. And often, when you go back to many books for ideas, you find that the individuals or the companies they cite as proof are no longer the success they once were.

Anyone want to study Carley Fiorina to learn about effective management? How about using the once-market leading Macy's to better understand their approaches to customer satisfaction and leadership? Not likely.

But there are certain characteristics of greatness that do stand up over a long time and can be used by anyone who is serious about becoming better. I'll be making them the subject of a series of blogs over the summer and I'd welcome your ideas as well. Also, if you've seen great leadership in action, share your stories here. Usually what works in one environment will transfer to another. Make the world a better place.

john

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

19 comments
dallas_dc
dallas_dc

In your poll question - I don't think it is that simple. If everyone who has it is born with it, you would not have a job as a leadership coach. It would be a waste of time. On the other hand, some people are great leaders with less effort than others, or are more apt to step forward when leadership opportunities arise. For that matter, many leaders create their own opportunities. So, my answer would be "no, but sometimes yes". Thanks

kaur
kaur

Drop the "great" as it is overused to describe leadership abilities. After all, there have been some extraordinary leaders: Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, Jim Jones, you get the drift. I imagine there were people who thought these guys were "great leaders". Don't you think the better question to ask is what motivates people to cooperate or follow one person, organization, ideology than another.

wbeddoe
wbeddoe

Character, Emotional Maturity, Humility, Competence, and Consistency... A good leader maintains the 30,000 ft. view and knows how to solve the problems of his customers. He/She is a good communicator and even more importantly, a good listener. http://www.beddoe.com

RMM2
RMM2

In my experience truly good leaders possess three main qualities: Integrity, clarity of vision, and persistence. A leader must be able to present a compelling future to the team, possess integrity to secure trust, and be tenacious in the pursuit of the team's goals.

ladywolf9653
ladywolf9653

I read a lot about this subject, because as a leader, I'm always looking for ways to improve. I'm forever attending webinars, seminars, reading white papers and studying other leaders. Over the years, I've learned to search for the nuggets of true wisdom in whatever I'm reading/listening to, and discard the rest. I by no means consider myself to be a great leader, but I try to be one that my staff respects, and do my best to avoid causing them to daydream about "offing" me. *laughs* I think a great leader is defined by the staff they lead. If you have a reputation as being honest, genuinely caring about the people you lead, and work to be an actual leader rather than a supervisor, then you're already on the right path. The world at large may not recognize you as being "great", but if those you work with do, then what else really matters?

dermot.callaghan3
dermot.callaghan3

I agree with your concept in that "a great leader is defined by the staff they lead" and also that you strieve to differentiate between supervisor and leader. I've been both a manager & a leader at different careen stages and right now I'm both in one job as my organisation goes through significant change. What I've notice is that very often great maangers are mistaken for leaders and that successful management doesn't necessarily make successful leaders.

hlhowell
hlhowell

My background is the Navy. I learned a most important lesson in the NAVY. Leadership means getting the most out of the people you have. Leaders don't just get in front of a great group of people, they take a group of people beyond their own expectations. A leader finds their skills, their abilities, and builds on them. Find their weaknesses and give them tasks to improve in those areas. Don't just criticize, help, don't watch, participate in building your team. If the ship is on fire, you assign some folks to hoses, some to water pumps, and you give them only the guidance they require to put out the fire, or to get the pumps to work. As soon as they are part of the ship, they know that land is a long ways off, and the ship gets them there. A company is the same thing. Ir provides safety in the storm, and the crew keeps the water out, the hull intact, and lends their voice, their hands and their hearts to the job. What you get back is respect, help, training and friends who know they can trust you. That is the benefits above and beyond the money. And unlike the civilian world, where the management style seems to be "try em on, wear em out and pitch em aside", when you realize that the special skills of your team make them unique, and valuable, then you find that helping them is helping yourself. It is not tough, but it requires discipline, and determination to get through the initial fear of leadership to go beyond "do what I say" style and to build that special group that can do anything. I have had a great life with the crews I worked with, the people I have met and the ones who have mutually helped me as I helped them. Maybe it isn't leadership, but it has worked for me. Regards, Les H

dawgit
dawgit

...You don't give a damn about wither people think you're "Great" or not. One would first have to be a "Leader". "Greatness" is Subjective. "Leadership" is Objective. They should not be confused. -d

otleyangel
otleyangel

by definition leadership is for a season; unless you are the Queen of England, and she was definately born into that! A leader takes people from one place to another, on a journey, when they get there the leader moves on either with the people to the next place or they stay camped up for a period in which case they don't need a leader but they may need a camp commandant! Moses is a good example of this principle. I wouldn't put him in the same category a Moses but Richard Branson is a more contemporary example; sees an opportunity, sets up an effective team, leads it to victory and then moves on. That's the reason why "great" leaders appear to ebb and flow like the tide. Some are great for a season and some are great for a lifetime.

dawgit
dawgit

... but I wouldn't call it seasonal. While it appears that way to the masses, a Good Leader is always a Leader. Of course even if you're the Captain of a ship, you must reconize that your ship needs to come in to port once in a while. (but you're stiil the Leader, even if the ship isn't moving) I also agree that Sucessful Leadership involves a lifetime, it's not just a passing fad to those who aspire to poscess it. -d

klaasvanbe
klaasvanbe

Making a right mix between feelings like empathy for people working for you and thinking about business interests like profit. Providing a win-win situation. Must be a gift in your genes.

CareerCoach
CareerCoach

A lot of companies think they can, and so we see someone was in charge of a home improvement company now running a car company, or another who did well at a large multi national trying to turn around an aircraft manufacturer. But the results seem to say the answer is "no".

dawgit
dawgit

...MBA Factories. Like the "One Minute Manager" concept. A "Leader" in the true clasical sense in someone who is the #1 in something. Wither it be an organization, a field of something, a business, or even the Military. When removed from that structure, a normal human will tend to flounder. You can take the fastest horse you can find, but if put in the middle of the ocean, he won't be running very fast. One thing about a sucessful Leader, is that he or she will know their limitations, as well as their strenghs, and avoid situations outside of their abilities. -d

CareerCoach
CareerCoach

They become "formerly great" because they take their eyes off the ball.

tech4me
tech4me

To me, a great Leader is someone who stands apart from the masses, they think differently, sometimes more thoroughly and deeply then the rest. A great Leader is NOT a lemming, a great Leader has people follow him or her even when they're not even trying to lead. Just because you're great being a programmer doesn't mean you'd make a great team leader for the development team with a bit of training. Leadership is not all 'training', it's character and personality, things much harder to teach, sometimes simply impossible depending on the person. Technically, you can be a leader by going to a 3 day course (and I've had plenty of bosses that have done this and think that makes them qualified). That only gives a person a title, it doesn't make them a 'great leader' in my opinion. So I'm with the minority voting that you're 'born with it'. Neither answers are really completely accurate, but all the training in the world won't make some people great leaders. They either have it or they don't. Training will improve what's already there, but not create something that never existed.

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

is one who remembers to look behind himself every once in awhile to be sure someone is still following :)

santeewelding
santeewelding like.author.displayName 1 Like

You have spent your 25 years focused on the chimerical.

dawgit
dawgit

That's a good one too. ;) Thanks, you learnt me somthing today. -d :^0

dawgit
dawgit

True "Leaders" at all. Just more PR Hype. Oops, their bubble broke. If that is the case, it isn't that they took their eyes off the ball, but that their eyes were on the Wrong Ball in the first place. -d

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