“What makes a great leader?”

As an executive coach, this is a question I’m asked constantly. My usual response used to be to answer the question with a question: “Think of a leader you hold in the highest regard — then tell me, what makes them great?”

But these aren’t usual times — and leaders held in the highest regard seem to be in short supply these days. In fact, our media is so saturated with examples of awful acts and statements by “leaders” that there are more examples of how not to lead than there are of how to lead others well.

So today, I take a different approach to the question — one that’s actually more empowering. Now, when one of my clients asks how to be a great leader, I’ll respond this way: “Describe the leader you wish you had — then tell me: What would you need to do to become that leader?”

Examples of effective leadership

As much as we may yearn for a magic potion, some kind of ideal, the truth is that there is no “perfect” set of leadership attributes. And there’s no shortage of opinions and research about what those skills and qualities are. Every expert has a model for leadership, and each has its own qualities and charms.

With that in mind, consider the following situations. Which ones look most like the leader you wish you had? And then take it one step further — and consider a list of your own, and how you would model that behavior yourself:

One who…

Remains the same leader as the day you met them — warts and all — no matter what?

Or who…

Solicits and takes feedback to heart — and continuously evolves and develops their own leadership skills?

One who…

Tells you what to do and how to do it — staying involved in every step of your work?

Or who…

Offers you context and a desired outcome — then leaves you alone with the responsibility (and authority) to do it your own way, and succeed … or learn from the experience accordingly?

One who…

Avoids conflict or debate and keeps things “friendly” and “consensus-oriented” right up until things inevitably go wrong as a result?

Or who…

Invites vibrant debate and constructive conflict — and opens the door to all voices, ideas, and views, regardless of “level”?

One who…

Keeps you in the background and takes it upon herself to “be” the face of your work?

Or who…

Highlights your accomplishments, and spotlights you — so you can present and be appreciated for your own work?

One who…

Would say you are lucky to work here — and views excellence as “average”?

Or who…

Notices, recognizes and encourages you — when you do well and when you need feedback, from colleagues, stakeholders, or clients?

One who…

Wants you to stay where you are — and get the most out of you because he knows you’re good at what you do?

Or who…

Encourages you to build supporters and sponsors inside and outside of your organization — and values your career growth and professional mobility?

One who…

Puts “getting stuff done” above all else?

Or who…

Prioritizes the learning and development of her people as equal to any specific task?

One who…

Seeks to assign blame when things go wrong — and transfers culpability to others?

Or who…

Takes personal responsibility for when something goes wrong — owns it and apologizes?

* * *

These are but a few examples — the “homework” for you is to create your own list!

Be the leader you wish you had: Follow the Golden Rule

Does every situation seem this unambiguously cut and dried? Doubtful. But that’s what makes the craft of leadership so important. Judgment, experience and a few bedrock principles.

If you think about it, the best leadership advice is the oldest: the Golden Rule. Work from that principle — of treating others as you wish to be treated — and before you know it, you will find you’re already there: the best leader you wish you had.

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David Peck is a Senior Executive Coach and Head – Western and Central US Regions for Goodstone Group, LLC, a global executive coaching firm. He’s been published extensively and is author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

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