Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What Makes a Great Leader

I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions recently about what makes a good leader, so I thought I’d share a few of my observations with you. I am very passionate about this subject. As always, I’d love your feedback.

First off, I subscribe to the Marcus Buckingham definition of a leader. That is, a leader is someone who rallies others to a better future. In order to deliver on this promise of leadership, I believe that great leaders must have incredible vision and the ability to rally others towards that vision. It just makes sense to me that you must know where you’re going in order to lead others there. It also makes sense to me that leaders require passion, persistence and an art of persuasion.

Leaders are irrationally optimistic about the future. The best way for me to describe this is that leaders must have the confidence and conviction to set out on a course of action that is not always apparent to others. They must have clarity in thought to stay the course when others sway. They must believe that they can change the future. They must have confidence in their own abilities. It’s a lesson I learned playing football as a kid. My coaches always said that if you don’t believe you can win, then you shouldn’t be on the field. That is, winning is 90% mental. It’s a lesson I’m glad that I mastered when I was young.

Great leaders think and talk about leadership all the time. The best way to identify a great leader is to find someone who has a point of view on it. That’s because they’ve practiced it, put their philosophies to use and learned from their mistakes. They're also not afraid to borrow ideas from others. The outcome of this is that great leaders instinctually handle the moments that matter.

Great leadership takes practice. It’s not something that can be taught in a seminar, but it is something that can learned over a lifetime. I am lucky to have had many experiences in my life that influenced my abilities as a leader, from the values my parents taught me, to the experiences on the football field to attending a military high school. I’m not sure I appreciated it at the time, but the leadership experiences that I had in high school have had a direct correlation to my success in business. And when it came time to go to business school, I must have instinctually followed leadership, because leadership development is a core part of the student experience at Michigan.

Leaders volunteer. It’s just what they do. They are drawn to those experiences and challenges where they can apply their skills, add value and make a difference.

Just because you’re in a leadership position doesn’t mean you’re a leader. Leaders come at all levels of the organization.

When looking for leaders in your organization, the best thing to do is to ask their peers, direct reports and mentees. Don’t ask their bosses. They almost never can see the forest through the trees. This isn’t always true, but seems to be so more often than not.


Negroponte said...

Nice blog post. I was looking for holes but didn't really see any. I firmly believe in the vision and that just because someone has a title doesn't translate into them being a leader (only a manager).

The interesting thing in my opinion is that you can only be a leader if people follow you. Very dependent on the support of those one leads.

JBernier said...

Well said...

If you are leading, and no one is following, you're just going for a walk - anonomous.

Chris said...

You touch on the fact that leaders exhibit leadership distinct characteristics in all walks of their lives as opposed to managers who leave it at the door. Leaders are strong parents, coaches, and citizens. I am always amazed when looking deeper into a leader, whom I admire, just how many things outside work they are involved in as well. Great leaders have certain characteristics woven into their DNA and they cannot get away from it. I suspect their involvement outside the office makes them better leaders in the workplace.

Clint said...

Chris - interesting thought. I added the idea of volunteerism at the last minute, but, as you point out, it seems to be a clear differentiator between leaders and managers.

I also think volunteerism is a symptom of how/why leaders tackle problems. They care deeply about what they get involved with. They approach problems with great passion. Most great leaders just seemed to be wired that way.

jbrown said...

Great thoughts. Someone is a great leader if others try to adopt some aspect(s) of his/her style (e.g. active listening, ways of giving feedback, analytical/decision-making methods). Great leaders are influential--directly and indirectly.

Andrea said...

I subscribe to the Clint Perez definition of leadership. Nice job.