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.


Leadership Coach