What Defines a Great Leader?


It seems like there are a million different answers to this question and maybe they all have a grain of truth to them given a specific time, place and point of view. I guess the first thing that I have to admit is that what defines a great leader today may not be what defines a great leader several decades ago and probably will not define a great leader in the future. Or maybe what defines a great leader is merely a representation of my own viewpoint at the time that I am trying to answer that question.

In any case, I recently heard a presentation by Simon Sinek in which he postulated that a great leader is someone who makes their followers (employees) feel secure. They basically surround their followers with a circle of trust against danger to the organization posed by all external forces. I have to say, the image that first came to my mind when he said this was from the wild west days in which pioneers would circle the wagons against an Indian attack, but then maybe the analogy is not that far off.

He also brought up some other interesting questions. For example, why do we honor people in the military with medals for bravery when they sacrifice or at least risk their lives to save other members of their team, but at the same time we reward business executives with bonuses when they are willing to sacrifice others within their organization so that they can reap the rewards of success for themselves? It sort of makes me think of the most recent banking crisis which caused a loss of over $10 trillion by some estimates due to foreclosures, business closings and even business slowdowns because of the inability to borrow working capital. Yet these same banking executives basically have been able to walk away from the crisis keeping the bonuses they were rewarded when bank profits skyrocketed due to the heavy use of appraisal fraud to inflate home prices and liar loans which are loans made with little to no checking of the borrower’s ability to pay.

It seems like most business executives today are more concerned with winning awards, getting bonuses, and achieving recognition within the community than in the long term success of their organizations or their staff. At the same time, most employees suffer from some degree of fear of losing their jobs because their organization is being threatened by competitors both from within the country and often internationally. The more threatened they feel, the more energy they expend on trying to protect themselves perhaps by looking for a new job or by learning a new skill that they can use somewhere else. This time and effort could have been better used by their current organization to protect that organization from outside forces by developing new products, new services, and becoming more efficient. Instead, that time is lost and the organization becomes more threatened by outside forces.

On the other hand, organizations that take a more fatherly approach to support their staff, help them grow, provide opportunities, promote education of the worker, and celebrating their achievements while coaching their failures. These organizations tend to experience greater employee loyalty with each worker looking out for the benefit of the group rather than just themselves. Simon also talked about the fact that in a family, you would never layoff one of your children when times got bad. Rather you would find ways to survive together through the tough times. How many organization would not give a second thought to laying off a worker due to financial reasons or because they took a chance on a product or service and failed. How many entrepreneurs failed multiple times before they finally became an overnight success, yet in most organizations, fail once and you are out the door.

Developing an environment of mutual trust is Simon’s answer. In fact, that seems to be his main point. If someone trusts you, human nature would say that you would be more likely to trust them and go the extra mile for them. Similarly, if trust is absent you may only do what you absolute must do to keep your job. How many organizations who don’t understand this are left with managers who are authorities within the organization and still get people to do what they tell them to do, but they do not have managers who are true leaders to whom the workers respect, look up to, and work harder for the common good of the organization.

Anyway, I found the presentation have some interesting points to think about and wanted to share them along with some of my own with all of you.

C’ya next time.

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One comment on “What Defines a Great Leader?

  1. Hi, Mike – to me, a great leader is one who (among other things) does the right things in spawning others who achieve some level of success. You’re much too modest to boast about yourself as a manager/supervisor, so I’ll boast for you. When I made my rookie mistakes, you pointed me in the right direction, at the right temperature and with the right words. The mentoring didn’t make me feel humiliated or discouraged, simply made me want to do better the next time. I always tell people, leadership is a verb, not a noun, and it’s the actions of a leader that count the most.

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