What Makes a Leader Great?
November 8, 2016
Today, we the people will head out to polling stations across the country to cast our votes for the next President of the United States of America. This means that, with our tiny blackened-in ovals, we’ll be choosing the candidate we believe will make the best so-called Leader of the Free World. Which, of course, is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, the top job in the U.S. (perhaps the sole remaining superpower) has the ability to affect millions, if not billions of lives, for the better or for the worse. For this reason, ever since this crazy, crass, seemingly never-ending election season began, and even more so recently, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time thinking about what makes a great leader. I’ve also been looking at what experts in the field of leadership believe makes a leader great.
To that end, what I found mostly were long lists of traits commonly associated with great leaders. These include integrity, honesty, confidence, courage, decisiveness, intelligence, self-awareness, empathy, humility, exceptional communication skills, etc. And, at a glance, it’s hard to argue with these traits; exceptional leaders should, ideally, have qualities like these. Leaders need to be able to command respect from those they lead (and can do so most effectively when they have integrity and are honest); they need to make sound, difficult, quick decisions (intelligence, courage, and decisiveness); they need to be able to work well with others (self-awareness and empathy); they need to be accountable and take the blame when something in their organization doesn’t go well (humility); and they need to be able to communicate their vision clearly (communication skills).
I also found that there’s another model in this leadership-greatness discussion, one that values actions and process over traits. And here’s a pretty good description of the differences between the trait and process model from Joshua Rothman, a New Yorkercontributor and former professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Last year, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s film “Steve Jobs” relied almost exclusively on the trait model of leadership: it suggested that Jobs succeeded because of his powerful personality. Watching the film, though, you couldn’t figure out what Jobs actually did. By contrast, if you read a detailed, process-oriented account of Jobs’s career (“Becoming Steve Jobs,” by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, is particularly good), it’s clear that Jobs was a master of the leadership process. Time and time again, he gathered intelligence about the future of technology; surveyed the competition and refined his taste; set goals and assembled teams; tracked projects, intervening into even apparently trivial decisions; and followed through, considering the minute details of marketing and retail. Although Jobs had considerable charisma, his real edge was his thoughtful involvement in every step of an unusually expansive leadership process. In an almost quantitative sense, he simply led more than others did.
Which makes perfect sense to me. When I think about what makes a great leader (of a country, company, classroom, team of any sorts) I value actions over words; I believe actions trump words when it comes to great leadership. Although leaders might say they have integrity and are honest, what have they done to illustrate this integrity and honesty? Although leaders tell us they’re great decision-makers and are highly intelligent, what have they accomplished that proves this ability and intelligence? Although they say they work well with others, have we really seen their empathy on display?
During my years on the job, in the classroom, and on the field, I’ve come into contact with numerous leaders (and by leaders I mean teachers, coaches, captains, managers, bosses, etc.). I’ve come into contact with many poor leaders, many average leaders, a handful of good leaders, and at least a few great leaders. And when thinking about all of the great leaders I’ve been in contact with, there’s one thing they all seem to have in common. And it’s not a particular trait, or set of traits, but this: the ability to bring out the best in those that follow them, while also improving their followers’ personal and professional lives.
This might sound like the simple ability to inspire others to act, but it’s not; it’s much more than that. It’s the ability to inspire others to reach their own greatness. Or, as one of the great leaders I've known called it, the ability to "spark the magnificent" in others. Which, in turn, leads to a collective greatness (or magnificence) for the organization or group the leader is leading.
Of course, to inspire others to reach their own greatness might take many, if not all of the traits mentioned above. And it takes impeccable actions that back up words. But ultimately, whether or not a leader is great will be judged on the success of the people and organizations they lead. Does a leader bring out the best and improve the lives of his or her followers? If the answer is yes, then you have your great leader. If no, then you’re not looking at a very successful leader.
It’s important to note in all of this that leadership isn’t reserved to those that hold positions in the corner office or Oval Office. Anyone, at any rung of the ladder, can aim to be a leader, and a great one at that. And what I believe is a better and faster way to achieve that is not by ticking off trait after trait, working on each great-leader trait independently, but keeping as your north star this one question in mind: Is what I’m doing now and how I’m acting now and how I’m being now helping others around me to do their best work and be the best that they're capable of being? If you keep that question in mind, all of the traits and all of the actions that experts say make great leaders will, I believe, follow and fall into place.
Lastly, as for how this topic applies to today’s election, it's my bet that one of the two major party presidential candidates—when all is said and done, when careers and terms in office have come and gone, when history books have been written—will widely be considered to have been a very good, if not great leader.