What makes a leader?

Once upon a time, the quest among students of leadership was to find the particular traits that set leaders apart from the rest. This had followed the so-called Great Man Era, the days when it was thought that the history of the world was really the history of the great men who had lived here. Trait theory fell somewhat out of favour in the years after WW2 as other theories came to the fore, but it has made something of a comeback in more recent decades. It seems that there may indeed be some characteristics that distinguish leaders. Leadership writers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner highlight honesty, being forward-thinking, inspiration, and competency.

I’ve been asking (via Facebook and email) what people think are the three most important marks of a leader. Among other things, people have highlighted faith and humility, the ability to be alone, vision, character and courage. I will feature a selection  from what people have told me over the next few weeks.

Meantime, here are three from me: I wish I could talk about four, but I asked everyone else for three!

1 – Trust. It’s hard for a leader to lead a group of people who don’t trust him/her. Sometimes the trust is generated by the leader’s competence: this is someone who can get the job done. But there is also a trust that is based on the perception of the leader’s character. I wonder if the reason why politicians with well-publicised integrity issues still manage to garner votes might be because followers are willing to enter into some kind of pact with a (morally) untrustworthy leader because they are confident that the leader’s competence will guarantee a particular outcome. Those followers should not complain when their house comes tumbling down! Good leaders will aim to build trust based on both their character and their competence.

2 – Self-awareness. Know yourself. Your strengths, your weaknesses, the areas where you are effective and the areas where you are not. Leaders need to know themselves well enough to be able to say ‘no’ to an opportunity that might stroke their ego but would land them far outside their level of competence. Self-awareness should also comprise an element of awareness of how I am seen by others. I’d venture to say that a lot of us have no more than a very vague idea of people’s perception of us.

3 – Resilience. The ability to bounce back and to stay on track. Resilient leaders are able to navigate the tough challenges that face their group. Sometimes the picture is going to be the captain telling the frightened sailors that they are going to make it through the storm. And resilient leaders are able to navigate their personal challenges. Sometimes life throws up crucible experiences where a leader is tested and asked questions about calling, character and values. Crucibles have the potential to shape and transform a leader, but without resilience, the lessons of the crucible may not be learned.

Trust – Self-awareness – Resilience.

What do you think?

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