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What Does it Take to Be a Great Leader?

"Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them." – William Shakespeare


Leadership has become a modern-day buzz word, yet I still find it an ambiguous term. To some, it's a talent, to others, a skill, and to many, it's an ambition. To call myself a Leadership Coach with any integrity requires having a definitive understanding of what leadership means to me and how to develop outstanding leadership in others. So, I embarked on a quest to define great leadership.


The Some Are Born Great Theory

Many are born into families with great wealth, power, and political authority throughout the world, making influence a birthright. However, that is not the kind of greatness I am interested in. In 1841, historian Thomas Carlyle asserted, "leaders possess certain characteristics that mark them for greatness." His great leader theory assumes that certain personality traits and characteristics are responsible for a person's rise to leadership and that great leader's shape history. I think transformational civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. would have agreed with him, having taught that "a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus, but a molder of consensus."


Researchers Robert McCrae and Paul Costa make a good argument supporting this theory with their widely accepted Five-Factor Model of personality. The Five-Factor Model demonstrates that "the more one is conscientious, extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open, then the more likely one will emerge as a leader of a group." These traits, combined with modern genetic research, has proven that many personality traits, including extraversion, intelligence, and temperament, have been proven heritable. So, in theory, one could be born a leader.


The Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them Theory

The Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, believed the opposite was true. He considered the person's qualities mostly irrelevant to their rise of power and surmised history shaped and determined great leaders. He argued leaders like Alexander the Great and Napoleon came to prominence because of the 'spirit of the times' -or the zeitgeist. The people's political and cultural values and beliefs were ripe for the dominance of a single individual. He credits the emergence of great leaders to a myriad of societal factors, instead of the leaders' personality or even their actions and choices. As if the times chose them. And they were merely servants to history, lucky to receive the credit for the people's efforts and accomplishments. His great work, War and Peace, reflects these beliefs.


You can find modern-day stories to support this theory. For example, would Mala Yousafzai have become a world-renowned humanitarian leader and the youngest Nobel Laureate had the Taliban had not brutally shot her or if Adam B. Ellick had not made a New York Times documentary of her story? Perhaps she would have. She was courageous enough to go to school in Pakistan despite a ban by the Taliban. She was strong enough to survive a gunshot to the head, and it was her blog published by BBC Urdu that first shared her story with the world. This argument is in no way meant to discredit the courage and conviction of Malala or diminish her story and humanitarian work. I'm merely wondering if events leading up to that fateful day on the bus had been different, or if the zeitgeist's focus had been elsewhere, would she have become the most famous teenager in the world?


Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author of Outliers: The Story of Success, attributes the success of tech millionaires like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, and a list of others to being born at the exact right time for success, supporting Tolstoy’s theory. To be exact, he argues being born in 1955 was the perfect year to make it big in high-tech because they were at the ideal age to be ready for the 1975 personal computer revolution.


The Some Achieve Greatness Theory

The consensus of our time is that leadership emergence is a combination of personal qualities and situational factors. However, social psychologist professor Donnelson Forsyth writes "that "what predicts leadership emergence may not also predict effectiveness once one has become a leader." Bringing me back to the original question.

What is great leadership? Kevin Kruce, best- selling author of Great Leaders Have No Rules, says Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others towards the achievement of a goal. I like this definition and wanted to know how to do this well. According to psychologist Robert Blake and management expert Jane Mouton, "a person's leadership style depends on how they answer two basic questions: (1) How important is the production of results by the group? (2) How important are the feelings of group members?" Their Leadership Grid management theory says that people who demonstrate high concern for results and people are the best leaders. Jim Collins, the best-selling author of Good to Great and Built to Last, developed the concept of Level 5 leadership. Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They're incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.


Thought leader and best-selling author of Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek, wanted to find out why some teams trust each other so deeply they would literally die for one another, as in US Marines. In contrast, other teams are doomed to dysfunction and failure regardless of incentives. He shares the answer that emerged in his book. Sinek says, "the answer became clear during a conversation with a Marine Corps general. "Officers eat last," he said. Simon watched as the most junior Marines ate first while the most senior Marines took their place at the back of the line. What is symbolic in the chow hall is deadly serious on the battlefield: Great leaders sacrifice their own comfort–even their own survival–for the good of those in their care." Sinek believes leaders should create a circle of safety by setting the conditions for trust and cooperation so people can go to work, feel safe when they're there, and go home feeling fulfilled.


Professor and best-selling author of Dare to Lead, Brené Brown defines a leader as "anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential." Whether you look to Donelson Forsyth, Simon Sinek, or Brené Brown for guidance on leadership, one thing is clear to me. Leadership is dependent on how you treat other people and how people perceive you, demonstrating the importance of social capital. The extent to which one's abilities are appreciated and recognized by others directly affects leadership emergence and effectiveness.


One study I find impactful was Robert J. House's Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness project, which studied cultural variations in leadership perceptions. Their findings "indicated that leadership is not just a process common to all cultures, but that people worldwide also share some basic beliefs about leadership. People expect leaders to be diplomatic, moral, charismatic (inspirational and visionary), team-oriented, and adaptable, intelligent, and administratively skilled. Those qualities considered to be most undesirable in a leader were those associated with a lack of integrity, self-centeredness, and asocial tendencies." In essence, this study demonstrates that effective leadership is universal.


Of all these universal leadership skills, I believe the one that distinguishes between good versus great leaders is their charisma. The ability to speak to hundreds, if not thousands of people, and make every one of them feel like you are talking directly to them is an enviable skill. The ability to inspire people and get them to buy into your vision is one of the most powerful skills in the world. I agree wholeheartedly with Donnelson Forsyth, who wrote in his book Group Dynamics, "Effective leaders contribute substantially to their groups by structuring and facilitation the completion of tasks and also by providing members with relational support. But leaders also face a third set of responsibilities, transforming the group, so it achieves more, both in terms of performance and members' growth and satisfaction. Transformational leaders stand for something and make their positions clear to others in the group. They challenge others to join them in their pursuit of exciting endeavors, but at the same time, they provide each member with individualized support and consideration. They are, in a word, charismatic."


So what's my conclusion? What makes great leadership? Great Leaders maximize the potential of others in pursuit of an ambitious goal for the organization they serve. They create a culture of safety in which creativity and camaraderie can thrive. They are as concerned with their people as they are with results. And they charismatically rally people around a shared vision, empowering them with hope.

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