In today’s world true, great leaders are hard to find. Some leaders are dominant and aggressive, while others take a more behind the scenes approach. Leadership styles vary, shift, are defined and redefined, yet most of us have only experienced true great leadership a few times. If it was easy, everyone would do it right?
In 2018, Forbes.com listed the qualities that define a true leader. The qualities include; Enthusiasm; Integrity; Communication skills; Loyalty; Decisiveness; Competence; Empowerment and Charisma (Fries, 2018). This list seems reasonable and you can create a picture of what a leader isn’t by listing the antonyms for each word. Apathy; Dishonesty; Poor Communication Skills; Treacherous; Wavering; Incompetent; Restrictive; and Bland are all great descriptors of what a leader shouldn’t be or traits they shouldn’t possess.
John Maxwell defined a leader this way, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way”. Hundreds of books on leadership have been written. Best seller after best seller tells the behaviors and traits of a great leader so we can follow in their footsteps. So why is it so hard to lead effectively? Why don’t the formulas work for everyone?
Ultimately, there must be a will to lead. A desire to stand apart from the herd must be present in every true leader. Clearly, some ‘leaders’ are thrust into position and are title only holders. They don’t influence, or drive decisions. They don’t inspire or motivate. They don’t stand as examples or model behavior. They are just playing a role. They may act like a leader, but they don’t embody leadership qualities.
Like an actor, leaders can learn lines and repeat dialogue to suit many occasions. They can move through a scene without disrupting much of the action, but they don’t really connect. They don’t leave a lasting impression. Somehow, they just don’t play a convincing part. Just like the actor who lacks emotion, empathy and an awareness for his fellow thespians, a leader who is not in tune with his players will strike the wrong note.
True leadership also requires a willingness to change and evolve. Leaders can’t stay one note forever and as they lead different teams, through different challenges. They have to be willing to shift control, know when to advance ideas, and know when it is time to stand aside to allow for others to succeed. A leader isn’t measured by his or her results, instead look to their team’s success to really understand what a true leader does.
Leaders also have to be willing to fail. They must be willing to accept defeat and identify lessons they can pass along. Finally, a great leader has to share wisdom. Educating and teaching must be paramount. These true leaders create new leaders.
And while much is made of what a leadership should do, qualities they should possess and characteristics they demonstrate, it isn’t often that attention is paid some universal truths that all great leaders face. First among those truths, is loneliness and isolation. Leaders don’t get the luxury of the herds protection or company. They have to stand apart.
In a recent article by Inc.com, they identify additional truths that face leaders in today’s business world. They outline seven key areas;
1). Problem solving by facing conflict directly
2). Growth and development
3). Employees ahead of customers
4). Keeping workplaces safe
5). Listen and accept feedback
6). Demonstrating trust through vulnerability
7). Feeling love and care
Leaders don’t have the luxury of avoidance. They must forge up to and through conflict the really lead the way forward. The nature of the conflict is immaterial. Leaders must cross this Rubicon to avoid stagnation, inertia and complacency. They have to face conflict resolutely and find mutually beneficial outcomes whenever possible. True leaders must make the difficult decisions that no one else should have or can make.
Leaders have to evolve. They must add to their knowledge and skills sets constantly. They must work as hard on themselves as they do on others.
Leaders need to choose sides. Employees must be a leaders first priority in the workplace. Above the needs of customers, employees who are valued and treated fairly are often more likely to perform better.
Great leaders make sure safety is a priority. Physical and culturally safe environments must be fostered and championed by organizational leaders. Ensuring that their employees have an equitable workplace where they feel heard and recognized develops better conditions do business. If leaders fail in this task, workplaces become fear ridden and unproductive.
Leader build trust and by asking for and accepting feedback regularly, they expand their influence. They demonstrate their humanness and they really care for those that work for them. Leaders don’t fake it. They don’t dial it in or just go through the motions. They are open and take in as much input as they can to keep lines of communication open and reduce uncertainty.
Ultimately, leaders are human. We sometimes forget they have challenges too. We can’t mark them perfect or infallible. Pedestals are meant to be tipped over, and if you place a leader on one, don’t be surprised or disappointed if they have trouble keeping their footing. Learn from them, but don’t idolize. Absorb information and teaching but don’t obsess. Find inspiration without blind adulation.
Being a leader isn’t for everyone. Not every soul is destined to lead, but there are qualities and skills we can learn and adapt to make ourselves more effective and more successful. If you think you have what it takes to be a leader, then apply yourself. Learn. Read. Ask for feedback. Your application may not be complete yet, but keep filling in those boxes so when you get your chance on the leadership stage, take the spotlight and get a standing ovation.