Posted on May 28, 2019 at 12:28 pm

What Makes for a Great Leader

What Makes for a Great Leader

Over the course of the last 18 years, I have coached more than 250 leaders and dozens of teams. I have observed leaders in a variety of settings such as in front of large and small groups, presenting to clients and during one-on-ones with staff members. I have seen them laugh, cry, frown, yell and smile.

Here is what I have learned about what makes for a great leader. They…

  • Understand that they are constantly in the limelight,
  • Combine personal humility with iron will,
  • Display high self-awareness around their strengths and weaknesses. 

1. They understand that they are constantly in the limelight.

The importance of leading by example has been drilled into me from an early age. It started (don’t laugh) in Boy Scouts, where I was awarded a leadership role – something I was immensely proud of at the time – because of exemplary behavior. It continued through my national army service where I almost got kicked out of officer school! I could not get myself to respect a Colonel who preached to us about the importance of personal discipline and iron will and who very clearly was an alcoholic (hint: don’t ever laugh when a Colonel is yelling at you ….) 😉

Most executives understand the importance of leading by example. Many forget, however, that they are constantly on stage. And I mean constantly: from the minute you walk into the office in the morning until you leave at night, you are sending signals to your people about what is desirable behavior and what is unacceptable. And it does not end there. Think business travel, office parties, and semi-social gatherings.

Do you ever: 

  • Miss deadlines without giving people a heads-up?
  • Fail to take responsibility for a poor decision you have made?
  • Spend time gossiping with co-workers?

Who? You? Never! Of course not. Me neither. 

If you do, however, be aware that your people are observing you constantly and are picking up on every little thing you do or do not do. They see everything: the good, the bad and the ugly! 

If that sounds scary and uncomfortable, you bet it is. The point is, you need to be conscious of the fact that you are the leader of the pack and NOT one of the pack – your people are constantly looking to you for guidance. 

Remember: what you do or don’t do is much more powerful than what you say or don’t say.

2. A leader combines personal humility with iron will. 

Jim Collins calls this “Level 5 Leadership,” and it is both counterintuitive and counter-cultural. People generally assume that being a great leader means having a larger-than-life personality. Jim Collins’ extensive research in his book Good to Great, and the humble personal experience of yours truly, show that nothing could be further from the truth. 

The most effective leaders rarely credit themselves for outstanding results. They are the first ones to credit their people or even external factors when things go well. However, when things go poorly, they first look in the mirror to find the source of their poor results. 

Great leaders act quietly and calmly and determinedly. They rely on high standards rather than charisma to motivate. 

Great leaders at the same time display an unwavering will. They are intolerant of mediocrity. They do whatever it takes to produce great results – terminating everything else.  

How does this look in real life?

Consider what Collins calls the “Yin and Yang” of Level 5 leadership. A leader….

  • Demonstrates a compelling modesty, yet demonstrates an unwavering will to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult.
  • Acts with quiet, calm determination, yet sets the standard of building an enduring, great company and will settle for nothing less.
  • Looks into the mirror – not out the window – to assign responsibility for poor results, yet looks out the window, not in to the mirror, to extend credit for success to other people.

Watch my speech on What Military Peacekeeping Taught Me About Humility.

3. Leaders display high self-awareness around their strengths and weaknesses.

We are expecting a lot from you as our leader. You are supposed to have the intellectual capacity to make sense of complex strategic issues, the operational ability to translate these strategies into concrete plans, and the interpersonal skills to foster an all-out commitment from your staff. 

It seems too obvious to even state it, but no one leader can be good at all of the above. And yet, I have seen too many clients trying to stay on top of everything – not wanting to admit to any weaknesses for fear of appearing incompetent. Ironically, it’s that fear that limits them from becoming great leaders.

Let me explain. There is a crucial distinction between an incompetent and an incomplete leader. We all are incomplete leaders; we all have weaknesses. Hopefully, only a small minority of us are incompetent leaders. However, one sure way to be incompetent is by denying that we are incomplete.

In other words, incomplete leaders differ from incompetent leaders in that they understand what they are good at and what they are not.

How might you discover where and how you are incomplete? Here are some options:

  • Self-reflection and journaling
  • Inviting feedback from your staff, peers, clients (e.g. 360 degree, interviews)
  • Having an executive coach shadow you

Once you have a clear understanding (and I mean a clear understanding and not “some sort of idea”) about your strengths and weaknesses, your good judgment is needed in deciding how you can work with others to build on your strengths and offset your limitations.

Sometimes, you will need to further develop the capabilities you are weakest in. Other times, it is more important for you to find and work with others who can compensate for your weaknesses. 

Rather than getting you to a place where you are pretty good at everything but not outstanding anywhere, I believe your energies are best spent truly polishing your strengths. Make yourself one of the best in that particular area and lift your weaknesses to an acceptable level (but not necessarily beyond that). 

Your takeaway:

Only when we see ourselves as incomplete – by discovering and acknowledging both our strengths and weaknesses – are we able to find ways to make up for our deficits and become great leaders.