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Truth: Great Leadership

Regardless of how one defines great leadership, a universal truth remains for all leaders – you are not a leader if no one is compelled to follow you.

Truth #1: Great Leadership is the Only Sustainable Competitive Advantage. Truth #2: You Are Not a Leader if No One is Compelled to Follow You.

Throughout my career I’ve read many books and articles written by smart people who all tried to define what great leadership is. The very fact there are so many different opinions on how best to define leadership suggests that “leadership” can be a relative attribute and express itself in many forms. For example, Mike Kryzewski, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Gates are all examples of great leaders and yet they each lead very differently. Regardless of how one defines great leadership, a universal truth remains for all leaders – you are not a leader if no one is compelled to follow you.

During my twenty-five years of human resources leadership I found most people want three basic things from their job: a purpose, the ability to master challenging work, and an appropriate level of input, recognition and autonomy (aka respect). These elements are a direct result of great leadership. I’ve seen employees turn down competing job offers for more money if their current workplace offered these three elements. While great leaders may come in many different styles, backgrounds and personalities, I’ve noticed people tend to follow leaders who:

Set a compelling vision: Great leaders set a vision that inspires lots of people to achieve more together than they could ever achieve alone. They paint a picture of a desired future state that points the way forward. Visions must be shared and understood by everyone, yet research tells us they are almost always under-communicated by a factor of ten. Some leaders only share their vision with a select few while others mistakenly assume their vision is effectively cascading down to all employees through their management teams. This compromises performance because widespread understanding of a leader’s vision provides employees with a purpose, a cohesive culture and serves to align their behavior, effort and action.

Connect with the people they lead. Great leaders have high emotional intelligence and know they need others to accomplish anything. Without followers, a leader is just a person with a good idea. Consider the best leaders you chose to follow in your own life and career. It’s likely that all of them cared about your well-being and success. They earned your respect by respecting you first, and earned your trust by acting with integrity, fairness and leading by example, consistently over time. They appreciated your contributions and demonstrated their gratitude by serving as your advocate; always putting the interests of the team before their own. Great leaders understand leadership is not about them.

Develop expertise and management skill. Human beings want to learn. Great leaders work to gain a personal understanding of their business, their function within the business and develop an expertise within that function or area. Then they teach others what they know (ideally this includes teaching others how to lead). Skills in areas such as problem-solving, decision-making, negotiation, communication, conflict management, goal-setting, and the use of the most appropriate leadership style for each situation enable leaders to fully leverage their organizational impact and the impact of their teams.

Are competent and effective. Great leaders are accountable and are trusted to reliably deliver positive results. They must be personally organized. Effective leaders plan, schedule and control their own time and the time of their key people so that everyone is optimizing the best use of his or her time*. Effective leaders are also transparent communicators who share information, organizational results, changes and even challenges as appropriate. They are effective budget managers and ensure their teams have the tools and support they need to be successful.

Are confident and positive. People naturally follow confidence and positivity. The greatest leaders are comfortable with who they are – leveraging their strengths while understanding and accepting their own shortcomings. Great leaders are confident enough to hire team members who complement their own deficiencies and ensure the capacity and competence of the group is always better than that of the best individual in the group. Great leaders can give honest feedback without creating an emotional charge in themselves or their employees because they have the employee’s growth at heart. They are also able to receive criticism in the same way. Great leaders have the confidence to accept the brutal truth about a situation and remain positive and optimistic for those around them. Joe Badaracco, a professor at Harvard Business School, wrote “If leaders disclosed all their concerns and doubts, stock prices would plummet, their competitors would be all over them, and employees would be jumping ship.”

There is a difference between doing, managing and leading. At each stage the focus shifts from the task to the people completing the tasks. There is a significant chasm in learning between doing and leading, just as there is a significant chasm between being a leader and a great leader. May you lead greatly.

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