On Becoming a Great Leader
This article first appeared in the August 2003 edition of detroiter magazine.
Pop quiz: What qualities describe a great leader?
Take a minute to think about it and jot down the first four or five that come to mind.
Pencils down. Does your list include words like inspiring? Visionary? Ethical? Did you consider communication skills and the ability to manage people effectively?
These are the kinds of responses I get when I give this quiz to colleagues. But when I press them to elaborate, they often disagree on what they mean by the items they list, because each quality is subject to debate.
Take, for example, "inspiring." Many seem to have a sense that this is the quality that sets truly great leaders apart, and that it is innate; I often hear "great leaders are born; you can learn to be a great manager, but you can't learn to be a great leader."
Perhaps you can't learn to be a great leader; neither is a great leader born. A great leader is something you become.
We all accumulate wisdom over the course of our lives. What sets leaders apart is not some inherent trait or talent, but rather the nature of the wisdom they accumulate.
Great leaders-from Jesus Christ to Nelson Mandela-embody a wisdom that subsumes every leadership adjective my quiz respondents offer, and a wisdom that is too often ignored in business and in life: the wisdom of philosophy.
In the context of leadership, a simple yet thorough framework for thinking about philosophy contains the following four categories; chances are good that the qualities on your list fit into this framework:
  • Ethics: Often mentioned in my informal quizzes, ethics is about more than knowing right from wrong; it's about service to others. Naturally, you must determine your own ethics, but great leaders ground their ethics in treating people fairly, and in consistently sticking to their values regardless of the consequences. Martin Luther King Jr. provides perhaps the ultimate modern example.
  • Courage: Courage in leadership is often thought of as the willingness to take risks, but it goes much deeper than that; courage is personal. It is fundamentally about authenticity: Know yourself; understand and overcome your fears and anxieties; present only your true face to the world. It's courage that contributes greatly to a leader's ability to inspire. Think of Walter Reuther, Lee Iacocca, Rudy Giuliani. Reality: Of course as a true leader you must have a firm and objective grip on reality-primarily to learn from, adapt to, and serve the environment in which you do business. Effective management, communication, and people skills are sub-components of reality. Prominent examples include Sam Walton and Steve Jobs.
  • Vision: Vision is not about predicting the future, nor about dreaming impossible dreams; rather, vision is a creative process, and therefore it is a much more difficult and complex concept to grasp-and to apply. This is because successful visionary leaders have internalized wisdom about their environments and their capabilities, so that this wisdom becomes part of the creative process. As a great leader-think of John F. Kennedy-you set audacious goals to move your organization toward the envisioned future, and then lead it there, one goal at a time.
No one of these attributes is more important than the others; they are intricately interwoven. When leading towards a great vision, for example, you must do so in the reality of each day, adjusting when necessary to the implications of that reality. Having a great vision requires great courage, but this courage must be tempered by ethical obligations. Similarly, when reality tempts you to breach your ethics, you must have the courage to stick to your values.
Focus on developing these four philosophical attributes, and you will become a great leader.