Qualities of a Superior Leader

A colleague and I were discussing leadership qualities earlier today and she asked why some “good” people don’t make good leaders.  If they have good character, why are they unable to “influence” others?  The short and simple answer is that good intentions and strength of character alone do not guarantee success as a leader.  While strength of character is important, indeed essential, there are several other attributes and qualities that are also necessary. Ironically, people don’t have to be “good” at all for others to follow them.  The power of influence is as often wielded by those with nefarious intentions, or more specifically, intentions that are primarily self serving.  That’s why it’s so important to understand that leaders emerge independent of titles and positions of authority.  If only they would use their powers for good instead of evil!

Key to any leader’s success is credibility.  Credibility must first be established in order to earn the trust and respect of others.  So, how do we establish credibility?  “Walking the talk,” “leading by example,” “being hands on,” “open honest communication” – I’ve heard these solutions in virtually every leadership seminar I’ve ever attended.  But what do they really mean?  These are all valid methods for establishing and maintaining credibility as a leader, but still do not speak to the deeper innate qualities that almost mysteriously manifest as superior leadership in some, while somehow leaving others impotent and ineffective.

Over the years, I’ve read countless books, spent hours upon hours in classes and programs, and dedicated the better part of my professional career searching for the meaning of superior leadership and the qualities that will make me most effective, in my role at work and also in my everyday life.  My desire is to not merely be a better manager, but also a better husband and father, a better friend and a better person.  I freely and openly acknowledge that I have been heavily influenced by numerous teachers, colleagues, subordinates and superiors.  After all, we’re all products of our environment and experiences.  I’ve filed away bits and pieces of principles from numerous scholars and authors from John MacArthur to Peter Senge, and added them all to the wealth of lessons I’ve learned first hand through practical experience.  And all of it I’ve slowly shaped into my own personal leadership model.  It will always be a work in progress, for the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, and so the model is constantly evolving through an endless pursuit of illusive perfection.

In my model, the qualities of a superior leader can be broken down into 5 essential attributes:

  1. Character
  2. Discipline
  3. Humility
  4. Courage
  5. Vision

These attributes represent the broadest measure of a leader’s effectiveness and success.  I view them sort of like chapter titles in a book.  To get a complete picture of what superior leadership looks like, you have to keep reading.

Over the next several posts, I will explore in detail the individual qualities these attributes represent and hopefully provide a meaningful context for application.

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The Meaning of Leadership

There are numerous perceptions that people hold regarding the meaning of leadership.  In one very understated and cliché sense, we’re taught that projects are managed while people are led.  While this is true, it is unfortunately too often the sole basis on which corporate training programs are structured.

Even well developed management training programs that do a good job of defining and describing the attributes of effective leadership can be brilliantly illustrative in terms of content while failing to establish the appropriate context, i.e., the complexion, qualities, and virtues that superior leaders tend to share and the manner in which these traits are revealed.  In fact, most of the training I’ve received in business and as a manager has focused on the mechanics of the job – employee performance development and management, coaching, team development, training, etc., etc.   While the few true leadership components have done an admirable job of listing the performance actions and attributes that make managers successful, none have addressed the personal qualities and characteristics that make certain individuals exceptional leaders.

What is “Leadership” anyway?  Wikipedia defines leadership as “the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members.”  Reducing this to its core, leadership is influence.  Therefore, it stands to reason that influence becomes the true test of a person’s leadership.

Ironically, the ability to influence others, either in an organization or in the political arena, ultimately doesn’t depend on an individual’s title or position of authority.  Far too often, those in positions of “authority” confuse their ability to inflict their will on others (where authorized by their position or title) as a “right” of leadership.  This is frequently the case with new managers and those whose motivation for leadership is primarily based on a desire for authority in the form of personal control and power.  Such relationships may command respect in a superficial sense, but are void of trust and respect.  They are based solely on fear rather than empowerment and personal ownership, and offer no provision for alignment of ideas or ideals.

In this self-centric mindset, the emphasis on success is internal.  The success of both subordinate individuals and the team is viewed by the manager as being dependent upon his or her personal success.  These managers tend to believe that in order to validate their own value to the organization they must make themselves essential to the success of the team.  I see this in teams that are largely dysfunctional when the leader is absent.  Decisions cannot be made without the manager’s consent.  Personal ownership and accountability has been stifled.  There is little or no basis of trust in the competence and discretion of the team members.  This type of manager hordes power, controls rather than leads, and lacks the self confidence to allow subordinates or the entire team to excel in his absence.  They make the success of their team completely dependent upon their presence and participation.

I suggest that just the opposite is true of superior leaders – that the true measure of success for a leader is not how necessary he is to the team, but in fact how unnecessary he is.   This might sound radical and counter-intuitive, so let me explain.  Simply put, if a leader has truly done his job, the people who work for him should be able to function autonomously for an extended period of time without the necessity of his direct supervision.  They should all be aligned both individually and collectively with the organizational vision and goals.  They should each have a strong sense of personal ownership and accountability, both to their leader and to each other.  They should exhibit integrity and self-discipline.  They should be enthusiastic and self-motivated.  And finally, they should have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement.  This is the very essence of a high performing team, and the best managers and strongest leaders, in effect, actually make themselves less and less relevant as their teams become more and more self-sufficient.

The ability to influence others is a powerful and awesome responsibility.  Effective, superior leadership, under which individual and team performance is developed and cultivated to its highest potential, requires uncommon, illusive, and perhaps innate personal qualities.

Next Post:  The Qualities of a Superior Leader