What Makes A Great Leader

What Makes A Great Leader

  • Posted: Jun 29, 2018

Leadership is an interesting topic because there really is no one-size-fits-all approach to it. True leaders are very rare and it's not easy to understand what separates them from average.

People of varying backgrounds have implemented vastly different strategies, processes, and principals to achieve greatness in terms of leading and influencing others towards a worthwhile goal.

Despite these differences, I believe there are a couple key attributes that all great leaders share.

1. Extreme Ownership

I first heard this term while listening to Jocko Willink's podcast and it immediately clicked as a universal truth of effective leadership.

All leaders (good and bad) take responsibility for the significant accomplishments of their teams but only great leaders also take ownership of their team's failures. It easy to place blame on others when things turn sour but reality is that leaders are 100% responsible for the failures associated with their teams/organizations, even if they are not directly culpable for a particular problem.

2. Persistence and Discipline

"Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success." -Napoleon Hill

Greatness in anything requires a high level of focus over a long period of time. Odds are, the first couple of attempts at a new thing will not go smoothly - you have to have the discipline to continue moving forward and iterating on your process, despite set-backs.

Great leaders are the product of years of hard, focused work. The typical analogy is commonly referred to as the "Iceberg Effect". From the outside, it looks like high achievers came out of nowhere and their success is based on sheer talent or luck, but this is never the case. What people don't see is all the work underneath that was required to reach the top.

3. Incredible Teams

A single person alone can never do all of the work required to build something of immense value and bring it to market. It requires a high functioning unit of extremely competent, motivated people to achieve significant success.

A great leader knows that a team of exceptional people are the most important factor in an organization's success and they must be able to recruit, motivate and empower them if they want to build differentiated products/services in a sustainable manner.

4. Emotional Intelligence

A leader's ability to understand how other people's emotions affect their actions and motives is crucial to building a competent team/organization. Even through human beings are extremely rational compared to other animals, our emotions still have a huge impact on what we think and do.

Empathy and emotional intelligence are key to developing true, honest relationships. Great leaders must be able to balance the inherent competing interests of their employees, shareholders, and customers so that the organization can stay stable and continue making progress.

Leaders that have the ability to change their delivery based on the underlying motives of the people they're speaking to are the ones who can influence large, diverse groups toward a common goal.

5. Intellectual Curiosity

In psychology, there are a set of characteristics called the Big Five Personality Traits that are commonly thought of as the essential traits to understanding someone's personality. One of those traits is referred to as "Openness to Experience".

"Openness to Experience" is related to a person's interest in new ideas, imagination and intellectual curiosity. You can think of this trait as 'learning fuel' and it's the driving force for intellectual development and change.

Great leaders (especially in modern times) need to be constantly learning and testing new ideas to keep up with changes in the marketplace & in their internal operations. Their ability to catalyze creativity is crucial to developing long-term, sustainable growth in their organizations.

6. Exceptionally High Standards

“Ideas are a commodity. Execution of them is not.” -Michael Dell

Values are propagated through an organizational hierarchy from the top-down. A high performing team is indicative of great leadership because it is the leader's standards that give an organization it's pulse.

The way a team executes a plan is the result of values and standards that are able to penetrate every level of an organization - from the executive suite, to the line-workers, and even to the customers they serve. Exceptional execution is easy to identify when you see it but difficult to emulate.

7. Make Hard Decisions, Quickly

Just about every decision a leader makes is really a game of competing interests. It's the leaders job to appropriately weigh these interests to make the best decision for the organization as a whole. You have to simultaneously please shareholders, employees, vendors, contractors, and customers.

Hard decisions (like firing, organizational objective prioritization, investments, divestments, employee conflict, public relations and many more) tend to compound in complexity and risk over time so it's important that leaders take action quickly.

8. Humility

"Nobody knows anything about anything" -Barry Diller

No matter how smart, educated or informed a person is, they can't know everything. One of the greatest skills a person can develop is learning what their shortcomings are so they can surround themselves with people who have complementary skill sets.

Similar to a drug addict, the first step to learning is admitting that you don't know something. The act of acknowledging your imperfection is what allows you take the necessary steps required to improve and move forward.

I'd love to hear from you – what do you think are the most important characteristics of great leaders?

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