What Makes a Leader

Calling yourself a leader does not make you a leader. Holding a position of leadership in your organization does not make you a leader. Having an important sounding title does not make you a leader. Having someone else describe you as a leader does not make you a leader.

Your promotion to a leadership position does not make you a leader, in fact the managerial skills that likely earned you the promotion are very likely holding you back as a leader.

If you’re trying to manage your people then you will always have people problems. Human beings do not respond to being managed. Actually leading your people will permanently eliminate most of the “people problems” managers face everyday. 

So, here are a handful of traits that contribute to being a leader:

Risking your success being hidden inside the success of someone else makes you a leader. 

Caring as much about the advancement of those around you as you care about your own advancement makes you a leader.

Tackling the assignments no one else will tackle makes you a leader. 

Investing your time where it’s needed rather than where you want to makes you a leader. 

Making right decisions that most people simply won’t makes you a leader.

Finding common ground where only mud previously existed makes you a leader.

Seeing the potential within every person you meet makes you a leader. 

Doing what’s right when everyone around you believes it’s wrong makes you a leader.

Working to build more leaders rather than more followers makes you a leader.

Understanding that your own success is dependent upon the success of your people makes you a leader.

Having the courage to let the best idea win, whether it’s yours or someone else’s makes you a leader.

Understanding that constant collaborative communication with your people will help them succeed makes you a leader.

A willingness to be held accountable, by anyone and everyone makes you a leader.

Being completely honest with yourself makes you a leader.

These are some of the traits that make a leader. To be sure there are more. Few leaders possess every recognized leadership characteristic but they possess more than people who do not lead.

The right to truly lead must be earned. It can’t be earned through what you say, it is earned through what you do. Leader “wannabes” tend to talk leadership, Authentic Leaders tend to do leadership. 

Are you just talking or are you doing? 

Are You Really Leading?

I’m kind of afraid that “leadership” has become something of a buzzword. The actual definition of buzzword is “a word or phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context.” 

If we buy that definition then “leadership” has actually been a buzzword for quite some time. I’m not sure when it changed from a meaningful word to a buzzword but my guess would be that it happened slowly over time, so slowly that many of us were slow to realize it happened. 

People, including me, have written exhaustively about the difference between managing and leading and yet most people who use the word “leader” when describing themselves still operate more as a manager than a leader. They know enough about leadership to use the buzzwords but when you watch them in action the buzz soon disappears and all your left with is words. 

One area, one critical area, where many of these would be leaders fall short is in developing and sharing their vision.

They effectively develop good strategies and operational plans (management activities) while glossing over or completely ignoring the vision. (Vision-casting is a key component of effective leadership) 

Authentic leaders understand the importance of goals and having everyone in their organization working towards those goals. A vision describes those goals in some detail and also explains how the strategies, tactics and operational plans of the organization ensure those goals are achieved. 

The best leaders endlessly clarify the vision and goals of their organization and explain how even small goals can serve to help ensure the larger goals are achieved. That process helps everyone within the organization understand their own role in helping the vision become reality. 

Here’s the thing; if you’re in a leadership role and you have no vision for the organization then where exactly are you leading your people? If you have a vision and you have not effectively shared it with the people you lead then why would they follow you? People have a need to know where they are going and what will be waiting for them when they arrive. Without that very basic information they are unlikely to actually follow.

Leadership is not just a word, it is an action, more precisely a set of actions. One of the actions is developing and sharing a common vision that comes from common goals. 

If you want to actually practice leadership rather than just talk leadership then share your goals and vision early and often. Repeat it again and again, make it a part of everyday life in your organization. 

People react to management but they respond to leadership, when it’s truly leadership. Reactive people will seldom help a manager achieve organizational goals but responsive people very often engage with their leader to accomplish great things. 

Share your vision and your people will respond. Once that happens anything and everything is possible.

Enduring Leadership

Enduring leadership is a characteristic of a great leader. Truly great leaders, what leadership gurus would call a Pinnacle Level or Level Five leader leave behind their leadership when they are done leading.

They leave it behind in the form of leaders they have helped build. That’s why you can’t truly declare someone a Pinnacle Level leader until they are at or near the end of their leadership career. 

You see, good leaders are judged by what they do; great leaders are judged by what gets done when they are not leading anymore. A truly great leader’s leadership outlasts them.

If you lead any kind of organization and nothing of you or your leadership remains when you leave the building for the last time then your leadership was of the common variety. Pinnacle or Level Five leaders are not at all common, in fact they are the most uncommon leaders of all.

They have not only built a solid follower-ship, they have built outstanding leaders who will carry forth their legacy and very likely build more leaders of their own. It is not a coincidence that Pinnacle Level leaders have almost all been led at some point in their career by another Pinnacle Level leader. 

If your ultimate leadership goal is to become a Pinnacle Level leader then you’re likely to fall short of your goal. Achieving recognition as a top level leader is seldom the goal of a Pinnacle Level leader, their goal is to make a difference in the life of their organization and the lives of the people they lead within it. 

Achieving Pinnacle or Level Five Leadership Status is merely a byproduct of their commitment to their people. 

Motives matter when it comes to leadership. You don’t build more leaders to reach the Pinnacle Level of leadership, you reach the Pinnacle Level of leadership by building more leaders.

Uncommon Leadership

I’ve had the opportunity to spend several days recently with a person recently promoted to a leadership position. He was very good at what he did and earned his promotion. His promotion came with a new title and higher income, unfortunately what it didn’t come with was any hint of how to actually lead. So he doesn’t lead, he just tries to get by managing his new team.

I’ve seen the same scenario play out literally hundreds of times through the years. A person is good at what they do so they are promoted into a leadership role even through they have little, or more commonly, no leadership experience or skills at all.

I call them common leaders. I don’t mean to be disparaging here but it is what it is… common leadership really isn’t leadership at all. At its best it’s just managing and and at it’s worst it’s something much worse. That something involves fear, coercion and sometimes even outright abuse. 

Absent any real leadership skills people in leadership positions too often tend to use intimidation, coercion, threats and punishment to force the compliance of their people. 99.9% of the people in leadership positions who use those tactics are not bad people, it’s just that in many cases that’s how they were taught to “lead.” Sadly, they were likely taught to lead by people who themselves had few if any leadership skills. So the cycle of common leadership simply repeats itself. 

Individuals who do manage to break the cycle of common leadership and become uncommon leaders don’t do so on their own. They most often have a mentor or are led by someone who has broken through the common cycle themselves. 

Here’s one of the most interesting aspects of leadership: it can’t actually be taught but it can be learned. It is learned not so much by listening to a true leader but by watching them. 

Authentic leaders lead by example. They show the way to true uncommon leadership. I can tell people what to look for in a leader, I can share with them the characteristics that make a good leader, and I can even help them judge whether or not someone in a leadership position truly processes those characteristics but a person must teach themselves to lead. 

Let me give you one example. 

Caring for people, truly caring and investing yourself in another person’s success and well-being is an absolute characteristic of an uncommon, authentic leader. I can tell someone that, I can point out a person who has that characteristic but I know of no way to teach someone how to care. They must develop that caring nature on their own. The quickest way to do that is to see someone else display their own caring nature and decide if the results they see are something they want in their own life.

If you were taught to lead by someone who did not develop those uncommon leadership skills then my very best advice to you would be to find a mentor who has. Find a coach or hire a coach who will help you break that cycle of common leadership and become a leader who can actually make a positive difference in the lives of those they would lead. 

Never assume that a leadership position makes you a leader. A leadership position doesn’t come with the right to lead, that must be earned by demonstrating consistent leadership skills. 

Develop those skills and people will naturally follow you. 

Leading with Influence

If you had no title of consequence, if you had zero power to punish and reward people – would they still follow you? Would you still get positive results from them? 

The answer to that question is yes if, IF, you are actually a true leader. 

At it’s core leadership is about influence. If you have the ability to influence others then you have the ability to lead. It is not your title or lofty position within an organization that makes you a leader, it’s your level of influence. 

If you’re truly leading people they will commit to you. People don’t commit to companies, they don’t commit to positions and they certainly don’t commit to titles. People commit to other people, period.

If your people are not committed to you then they are not truly following you. They may comply with your requests because you have the power to punish and reward but that simply makes you a boss not a leader. (Just to be clear here I do not use “boss” in a negative sense, I use it just to distinguish the difference between leading and not leading. I have worked for bosses with no leadership ability at all and for bosses who were outstanding leaders.)

The foundations that support influence are perception and visibility. Influence doesn’t happen unless you have improved others’ perception of you and increased your visibility. Once you’ve established the appropriate level of perception, you will have gained a solid reputation and foundation of respect. After you’ve increased your visibility, you’ll become known and valued in your organization. Influence now becomes possible.

So, how do you improve other people’s perception of you while increasing your visibility? Here are four ideas…

Intentionally plan your day. Most people sadly just let their day happen to them. People of influence happen to their day. They focus on the outcome they need from their day and not all the small events that may happen to them during it. They leverage the events that get them closer to their desired outcome while minimizing the impact of the events that don’t. 

Choose to help. My better days are the days I help others be better. My best days are the days when almost no one knows I did it. If you have to tell people that you’re helping others you’re still missing the influence mark; help enough people and you won’t have to tell anyone because lots of people will notice the difference that you make.

Accept responsibility for the outcome. Don’t blame others for your mistakes. You will never learn from a mistake that you won’t admit and when you don’t accept responsibility for your mistakes you at least inadvertently shift the blame to someone else; that does not improve other people’s perception of you. Mistakes happen, they are a part, an important part, of growing. I wouldn’t recommend highlighting your mistakes but don’t try to hide them either.

Recognize others….for their success and yours. People crave recognition! Even people who say that don’t need any recognition literally crave it. It’s a basic human need. So fill that need for others, praise them early and often. Be intentional about looking for good things other people do and be lavish in your recognition. Also remember that it’s very likely that others contributed to your success, don’t forget to share your success with them through public recognition. No one, I mean no one, succeeds completely on their own. So don’t behave as though you did.

Influence is built, little by little, day after day. If you want to earn the commitment of your people then commit to build your influence every single day.

Leaders Listen

Most of us, myself included, tend to take the ability to hear for granted. We also too often confuse the ability to hear with the ability to listen.

Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound by the ear. If you are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. Listening, however, is something you consciously choose to do. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences.

The best leaders listen. They are always listening. They even listen to things that they would just as soon not hear. 

Leaders make themselves available to hear the “noise” in their organizations because that’s like inside information.

Weak leaders try to silence the noise, better leaders encourage it and find a way to turn even negative noise into useful information. Think about it, would you as a leader rather pretend all is well or would you rather know where your opportunities for improvement might be?

When you listen, really really listen, you will likely hear some things you wish you hadn’t. You may even hear some stuff that isn’t true. You must also realize that part of your role as a leader requires that you have the ability to sort the good information from the not so good. (A bit of an aside here but as a leader you also do have a responsibility to stop untruths from being spread)

Authentic Servant Leaders know that good listening is the beginning of great ideas so they listen at every level of their organization. 

They also listen with more than their ears. They “listen” with their eyes to determine if what they are hearing matches with what they are seeing. They “listen” with their heart as well to determine the level of emotion attached to what was said. 

Authentic Servant Leaders understand that communication is a participative endeavor and that actually communicating requires them to listen more than they talk. 

If you’re a true leader then you certainly know that you still have much to learn. Hopefully then you also know that you’ll learn more in a few minutes of listening then you’ll learn in hours of talking. 

So listen up. Listen to what was said, listen to how it was said, listen to when it was said, and listen to whoever said it. 

You’ll never know where your next learning opportunity will come from unless you’re always listening. Anyone can teach everyone something and that means as a leader you should invest the time to hear from all of your people. 

Did you hear that?

Middle Leadership

Everyone is familiar with the term “middle management” but the term “middle leadership” is rarely heard. 

But the vast majority of leadership actions come not from the top but from the middle of an organization. That a person needs a high position or important sounding title in order to lead is perhaps the single greatest leadership myth of all. 

The top leaders in an organization may indeed make the biggest decisions but it’s all the daily decisions made by people in the middle leadership roles that make those big decisions possible. 

Top leaders who forget that do so at their own peril. 

Many people in the middle of an organization believe that they can’t lead because they don’t have a position or title of leadership. That’s just not so! 

Not only can you lead, you can lead in all directions. You can of course lead down the organizational chart, you can lead across and you can even lead up. You don’t need anything other than influence and a desire to make a difference from wherever you are in your organization. 

The key to leading from the middle, well really leading from anywhere, is to first lead yourself exceptionally well. To lead yourself you must be able to make your own decisions. You also must be able to complete your work without requiring a ton of help and input from those around you. 

You must be able to manage your emotions and attitude in such a way that your presence adds value to those around you. I understand that no one can do that 100% of the time but putting a  little focus in that attitude control area will make a big difference in creating a positive influence with those individuals you would hope to lead. 

Never never forget, your attitude is your choice and it is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make. 

Integrity is an absolute must for Authentic Servant Leadership and the ability to control your emotions and maintain a positive attitude are not far behind.

So…who controls your attitude?