The Look of Leadership

I was in a conversation with a colleague a while back and the discussion was about the relative leadership abilities of two individuals. We clearly had differing opinions of these two people and my colleague said it was obvious which one was the better leader. They said one looked much more like a leader than the other.

 

I think I know some stuff about leadership. We can debate all day long whether that is true or not but this much I will acknowledge without a doubt; I have no idea what a leader looks like. 

 

I have seen leaders of every shape, size and color. I’ve seen both men and women who were tremendous leaders. I’ve seen many people who never held a true leadership position who were nonetheless outstanding leaders. 

 

Leaders come from all walks of life. They come from every country, every economic level and every so called social level. A great education doesn’t make a person a leader anymore than a lack of formal education limits someone’s potential to lead.

 

Too many people get fooled by what they believe is the “look” of leadership. You know the look; they dress appropriate for their position. The say the right stuff. They are always politically correct. They smile a lot and compliment the people above them in the organization. 

 

It should be pointed out that many great leaders indeed have that exact look….but many do not. It also must be pointed out that having that look most certainly does not make a person a leader. Many people with that “look” are nothing more than a mirage of leadership. 

 

That’s why I don’t invest much time looking at a person to determine if they are in fact a leader. I look at the people they claim to lead. 

 

A managed person who will do what they are told and if they are not told to do something then it is likely that is what they will do, nothing. A person who is led will do so much more. They not only do more they think more, they take more risks, they are more engaged, they care more, they ARE more. 

 

A person who is managed will seldom reach their potential. A person who is led well will reach their potential and then push past it to accomplish more than they ever thought possible. 

 

The “look” of Authentic Leadership and especially Authentic Servant Leadership, is not found by looking at the leader. It is found by looking at the people they lead. 


Using appearance as a criteria for leadership is beyond silly. Yet it happens across organizations big and small every day. Don’t make that mistake, leaders produce favorable results, in themselves and in their people. Throughout history this simple fact has always remained true: if there is no result then there is no leader. 

The Most Important Characteristic of Leadership

I have long held that the most vital characteristic of leadership is integrity. Other’s including some who I greatly respect would say the most important characteristic of leadership is good judgment. 

 

I have a hard time admitting I could be wrong about this. It does seem though that lots of people are willing to sacrifice integrity for what they think is judgment that more closely resembles their own. 

 

But it is beginning to appear that those who believe judgment to be the most crucial leadership characteristic may be mistaken as well. That’s because empathy seems to be increasing in importance. 

 

There are currently 462 million variations of the definition of leadership on Google. No matter which one you prefer they all have something to do with people. The definitions say something about motivating, encouraging, teaching, challenging, or building people. They talk about caring and making a difference in the lives of the people you lead. 

 

Every definition of leadership indicates that empathy is a critical characteristic. Perhaps even THE critical characteristic for successful leadership. 

 

There is a great line near the beginning of the all time classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s the scene where Clarence the Angel is getting his instructions from Joseph. Clarence is in a hurry to get to earth. He wants to earn his wings by helping George Bailey who is played by the great Jimmy Stewart. But Joseph tells Clarence to stop long enough to learn something about George’s life. Joseph says that if he is going to help George he needs to know something about him.

 

So it is with leadership. 

 

If you’re going to lead others, motivate and coach them, challenge them and make a difference for them then you’re going to have to know something about them. You’re also going to need to be able to see their life from their point of view. 

 

That’s empathy!

 

Empathy grows in importance as technology continues to push the human element out of relationships. If you lose sight of the humanness of the people you’re supposed to lead then you lose the ability to actually lead them at all. 

 

So what is the most important characteristic of leadership? Here’s the real answer… if you lack integrity then you lack the ability to lead. Without integrity people will not trust you and if they can’t trust you they simply will NOT follow you. 

 

If you have integrity but lack sound judgment then you will be an honest failure but a failure as a leader all the same. If you have no empathy for the people you lead then you’ll likely find that even with integrity and excellent judgment there will be no one following you. People will know that while you may care about them, as you would any “asset” in your organization, you don’t actually care for them. 


I suppose what I’m discovering late in my own leadership journey is that it doesn’t really matter which leadership characteristic is most important. If you struggle with even one of them you’ll have significant challenges when attempting to lead. 

Are you a Role Model?

Well, are you? The short answer, especially if you’re a leader or even just someone in a leadership position, is yes.

     

Your people watch you. No one is born with the knowledge of what it takes to succeed so they must learn it. They learn some of it by listening, some by reading, but mostly they learn from watching. If you are their leader or the person who is above them in a leadership position then it’s you they are watching. You MUST be their model of successful behavior!

     

So you absolutely are a role model. The only question is, do you model behavior that leads to success or do you model behavior that leads to something else. 

     

You can tell your people what to do and they may do it. You can show them and they will likely do it, or you can tell them and show them. If what you said matches what you do they will almost certainly do it.

     

Therein lies the problem for people who are leaders only because they occupy a leadership position. Their words often don’t match their actions. They have yet to learn that their people will do what they do long before they will do what they say. They are also surprised when they eventually learn just how closely they are watched by those who would follow them.

     

Authentic leaders are careful to make certain that their actions match their words. They realize that is the surest way to build trust and credibility and that those two characteristics are vital for leadership.

 

Showing your people what to do however isn’t really enough. Showing them how to do it is key. By “how to do it” I don’t mean how from a technical nature, I mean how in terms of attitude. 

 

You are their attitude model as well. Attitudes are contagious and no attitude is more contagious than the attitude of the leader. You may not appreciate hearing this but if your people appear to have a negative attitude then you must make certain that you are not the source. Maintaining a positive attitude is critical for effective leadership.

     

If your goal as a leader is to build other leaders then your words and actions must match and you must do everything possible to maintain a positive attitude.

     

So, watch what you say and remember, someone else is always watching what you do.

Why Leaders Need Vision

Leaders don’t need 20 20 eyesight to have good vision. What they need is an imagination, an idea of what is possible, and a picture of what the future may hold. 

 

That vision should guide them and motivate them to grow and improve. It should provide hope in the tough times, particularly if their vision includes an understanding of their purpose and the purpose of their organization. 

 

A good vision can show the leader where they and their organization are headed. It will pull the leader past the inevitable roadblocks that pop up within every plan. A true vision provides focus. The vision helps answer every question that could come up. If something gets you closer to your vision you do it, if it doesn’t get you closer to your vision you don’t. Good vision provides clarity for a leader even during the foggiest of times.

 

Good vision helps a leader answer the “why” question that can otherwise place doubts in the leader’s mind. A leader with good vision always has an answer to the “why are we doing this?” and “what’s the point?” questions that can haunt leaders with lesser vision. Particularly when those questions come from naysayers. 

 

Good vision does all that and more for a leader and you know what? It can do all those things for a leader’s people and their organization too. 

 

If.

 

If the leader is effective at casting that vision upon those people and the organization. Since a leader can’t really do much alone they must be able to communicate and “sell” that vision to their people. They must reinforce that vision through their words and actions at every opportunity. 

 

People find it easier to follow a leader when they know where that leader is taking them. They find it much much easier to follow a leader when they know they are included in the vision. 

 

When a leader shares their vision with their people those people become engaged and they stay engaged. When those people buy into the vision they commit to making it happen. When all, or at least the majority of the people within an organization share the same vision that organization is nearly unstoppable. 

 

If you’re leading any type of organization today then you must, must, must develop and share your vision for your people and organization. You must share it soon and you must share it often. You truly cannot over share your vision. 


The alternative to not sharing your vision is… well, we don’t want to go there because that my friends would be a very sad story. 

First Person Leadership

If you can’t lead yourself you can’t lead anyone. 

 

Too many people in leadership positions focus all their leadership energies on leading other people. They forget about leading the person most responsible for their success… themselves. The problem with that is it often causes someone to hold the people they lead to a higher standard than themselves. 

 

They know exactly the qualities and characteristics they are looking for in their people but they never stop long enough to see if they possess those qualities and characteristics themselves. They forget that they are the model of successful behavior for their people. 

 

What about you? Are you leading yourself with the same standards that you apply to your people? 

 

It’s likely you expect your people to have a positive attitude. Have you checked your attitude lately? Attitudes are contagious and a leader’s attitude is more contagious than most. If your people see you struggling with your attitude then they will struggle with theirs as well. Maintaining a positive attitude is a choice and it’s a vital choice if you hope to lead effectively.

 

Are you an emotional leader? Emotions are a powerful human force but they are also a twin-edged sword. Too little emotion and leadership dies pretty quickly. Too much emotion and it can die even faster. What kind of emotional model are you for your people? If you can’t lead yourself to control your emotions than it’s almost certain you can’t lead anyone else to control theirs. 

 

Are you modeling enthusiasm? Leaders want their people engaged in and enthusiastic about their work. It’s not often that you find a leader’s people more enthusiastic than the leader. When was the last timed you evaluated your own level of enthusiasm? It’s hard to stay “pumped” everyday but if you act enthusiastic it doesn’t take very long until you’re actually enthusiastic. You can’t fake enthusiasm but you can make it. Act enthusiastic and you will be enthusiastic!

 

Can you lead yourself all the way to the finish line? Successful people finish what they start and that applies to leaders as well. Strong starts are important but it’s strong finishes that make people successful. You must push yourself to finish what you start. If you can’t get yourself across the finish line then you won’t be able to pull others across who are following you. 

 

You can’t start projects and leave them unfinished. When you do that you’re modeling unsuccessful behavior for your people. When that’s what you model that’s what you get.

 

When I want to know how well someone in a leadership position leads themselves I don’t invest too much time evaluating the leader. I evaluate their people, that tells me far more about the qualities and characteristics of the leader. Your people are a reflection of you. When they aren’t performing look first in the mirror for potential causes and solutions.

 

You can occasionally find that gem of a person who excels past the level of their leader. They find a way to make their own model of success. But generally speaking you as the leader are that model so it’s a good idea to stop occasionally to determine what it is that you’re modeling for your people. 


Always remember, before you can effectively lead others you must lead yourself exceptionally well. So… how you doin’?

Leading from a High Horse

I had a nice long “catch-up” conversation with a friend I’ve known a long long time. Since High School actually so it’s kind of a shockingly long time. 🙂

 

She works for one of the largest manufacturing companies in the world, she started right out of college, and she has done very very well for herself. She runs a very profitable part of the company and has a significant number of people who report either directly to her or to one of her direct reports. 

 

During our conversation she asked me something that I thought, given her success, was pretty surprising. She asked me how she could get her people to stop giving her their opinion without hurting their feelings.

 

When I asked her why she wanted them to stop giving their opinions she said it was just a matter of time. She simply didn’t have time to listen to people whose opinion didn’t really matter. 

 

It was at this point that I had to just stop for a minute (seemed like an hour) and think of how to respond. There was so much wrong with the statement I didn’t really know where to begin. Now this is a person I have great respect for, I remember her when she was so afraid of her own shadow that she couldn’t try out for the cheerleading squad. She has truly grown so much through the years and she is a wonderful person. 

 

But the statement was so incredibly insulting to her people that I couldn’t hardly believe she had said it. 

 

I asked her how long she had felt that way and she couldn’t pinpoint when it started but she said the feeling was growing and she was getting more frustrated with her people by the day. 

 

So I offered her these two ideas. I said that she really didn’t need to do anything, the “problem” would soon take care of itself. I said if her team had any brains at all they would soon realize that she didn’t value their input and the input would simply dry up on it’s own. I told her that hurt feelings would be the least of her problems because her team would simply disengage and be far less valuable employees and that the disengagement would be her responsibility. 

 

Then I told her that it wasn’t her team’s responsibility to stop offering ideas and suggestions; it was her responsibility to get down off her high horse and learn to value their opinions. I said if she had hired someone, or allowed someone to be hired, that she couldn’t learn from then she had allowed the wrong person to be hired. 

 

She was pretty quiet. 

 

I reminded her that when she was moving through the ranks that her leaders DID value her opinions and encouraged her to share them frequently. It was one of the big reasons she advanced in the company. I asked her where she would be today if her former bosses had thought of her opinions that same way she was now feeling about her people’s opinions. 

 

Here’s the lesson folks; sometimes we “lead” by letting the people we lead teach us. Sometimes we lead by simply listening to our people. We always lead by demonstrating that we value the people we lead. 

 

If you’re a leader who has gotten so full of yourself that you can’t learn anything from the people you lead then you have gotten to the point that you can no longer actually lead.

 

If you’ve forgotten that you can learn from anyone and everyone then you’ve forgotten how you became a leader in the first place. Get down off that high horse and retrace your path to becoming a leader, you may just be surprised at how much you don’t remember.


By the way, I’m happy to report that my good friend now keeps time open on her calendar each day just to be available for any member of her organization to drop in to her office with ideas, concerns, opinions, and suggestions. She’s a great leader and she already knew all that stuff I told her, she, like everyone else, just needs a reminder once in a while. 

The Difference Between Managing and Leading

My last post focused on the scourge of micromanaging. In it I noted that there was significant differences between managing and leading. I received a comment from a reader, Michaël Ben-Yosseph that was very kind and had nice things to say about the post. He also suggested that in my next post I discuss not just that there is a difference between managing and leading but exactly what those differences are. 

 

Well, this is my next post. So here we go! 

 

First I would say that the difference is as large as the difference between night and day. We manage stuff and we lead people. Perhaps the biggest single difference is that stuff, budgets, inventories, buildings, etc. don’t have feelings. That alone makes managing a whole lot easier than leading, at least to me.

 

People, at least the ones I know, most definitely have feelings. For many of those people those feelings are easily hurt. 

 

That’s why it’s vital for a leader to care about their people. You can care about people without leading them but you simply cannot lead them without caring for them. An attitude of genuine caring will shape every other interaction and communication you have with your people. So will a care less attitude. If you do not possess a genuine caring nature you will struggle as a leader. 

 

Managing is very much about today. It’s a one day at a time kinda thing. Leadership is of course about today but it’s also about tomorrow, the next day, the next week and the next years. That’s why leading requires vision and managing requires tenacity. 

 

Managing is a very specific business, it’s the art of steering the ship on a well-defined course. Managing requires facts, data, and objectives. Leadership is the art of turning the unlikely, and at times the impossible, into tangible, reachable, realistic objectives. Organizations seldom manage their way to success. Organizational success requires leadership. 

 

Managing is an inside job. Managers utilize their internal resources to make things happen and achieve the goals of the organization. Leaders understand the outside as well as the inside. This provides them with the insights required to see their entire business environment and anticipate needed changes as well as understand potential opportunities. 

 

Leaders influence while managers direct. It’s really not always that black and white but it’s almost always that black and white. While leaders focus on what will matter, and on why it will matter, managers tend to focus on how it will matter. 

 

Said another way, leaders decide what to do and managers decide how to do it. Unless of course the leader is also a micromanager and then all bets are off. 

 

Leaders are really the heart of an organization. They inspire, coach, vision cast, create and nurture the organizational culture. They keep the organization moving forward through communication and motivation. No organization succeeds without solid leadership. 

 

No offense to leaders but managers are more like the brains of the organization. They make the rules, set up policies, programs, etc. Managers are about business, not people. No offense to managers but they usually see people as just another tool or asset they can use to get the task completed. No organization succeeds without diligent management. 

 

Frequently the skill sets and the more important mindset of managers and leaders are so different that it’s challenging for one person to possess both. But “things” tend to work better when managers have a heart and a whole lot better when leaders have a brain.


It’s not that one person can’t be both a good manager and great leader, it’s just that it requires effort and dedication that sadly, too many managers and leaders appear unwilling to make.