Volumes have been written on leadership, many by highly successful, widely recognized men and women. A frequent topic is whether leaders are born or made. Indeed, this was the first question posed to my MBA class and one which we hotly debated, each from our own perspective and for our own motives (or internal reinforcement?). Over time I've learned that it doesn't matter. The best leaders make it their business to know enough that they not only recognize the right thing to do, they do it. Leaders are teachable.
Leaders step up when it matters, when others hesitate. With a nod to Kenny Rogers, leadership is knowing "when to hold 'em, fold 'em, walk away, or run." Leaders do the right thing in the interest of that which they are ethically bound to represent. In the best cases, that's consistent with the greater interest, and that also coincides with their own interests. Leaders have to eat, too, after all.
Leaders inspire others through their actions. Leaders can be good or evil, but leaders lead and followers choose, are even compelled, to follow, each with their own motives in mind. Leaders know what those motives are and how to satisfy them to elicit required levels of quality and performance. Leaders don't divisively manipulate; leaders openly generate trust through confident transparency and a sense of common purpose.
If you are born a leader, it comes easily to you. In fact, your issue is more likely to be understanding when to sit down. If you want to learn to lead, congratulations—you have the most important trait—you are willing to adapt, and that's imperative to strong leadership. Leaders actively listen, are open to new ideas, know they don't know everything, can be wrong, and are secure enough to apologize, forgive, forget, and move on.
Leaders know that to lead well, you have to want to lead. Leadership can be very tiring because leaders give of themselves to fill up the cracks in the wall, the chinks in the armor. Leaders hold the followers up until followers can stand on their own two feet with confidence. Leaders inspire because they have courage, because they will face the "front line" of whatever's necessary. Leaders roll up their sleeves when it's necessary, bailing the rowboat if it means sinking or surviving. Leaders are up to their ankles in mud in the trenches along with everyone else.
And leaders also know that to survive next time, the organization must have a common vision, a purpose that's beyond individuals and true to the greater vision the organization exists to serve. Leaders create that vision or—if they can't—they bring in someone who can help them create it. Leaders think, not just do. They make sure that there is a scout helping inform the next steps, based on the end goal as well as the next right footfall.
Leaders from some organizations sit in the dunk tank, cheerfully going under. People eagerly line up behind them because it's fun. Leaders of other kinds of organizations are the first to recognize new trends affecting their organizations, where the revenue's going to come from, that their constituents' needs are changing, and that that evolution is going to accelerate in the future. Some leaders are best at building, others at maintaining, still others at integrating. There are even leaders best at helping followers move on to the next right thing with dignity and purpose.
Born or made, where do you stack up? Where do you begin to improve your skills or those of your followers? It all begins with you, because you're the one that people are watching, emulating, and/or trying to outmaneuver.
Characteristics of a Leader
- You understand your organization's greater purpose, or you have an active plan to understand it, create it, modify it, or change it. To do any of the above, you've ensured you have the best information and resources you can afford, you've carefully considered who and what you need to include, and you know where those resources are going to come from and/or where you're going to get them if they're lacking.
- Purpose in hand (or planned for), you know exactly where the money's coming from and where it's going. Your greatest duty outside the vision of the organization is to ensure it's an ongoing concern. Yes, this can mean having to make the hard decisions; unfortunately, that's your call, and you have to do it to lead effectively. If you don't know, understand, or trust the numbers, you've got an active plan to fix that. Unfortunately, the higher up in the organization you are, the more likely it is that people are coloring their information in their own interests or for their own motives. One of your jobs is to know the numbers well enough to be able to identify when that happens and to know better than that. "The buck definitely stops with you." No excuses.
- Similarly, you understand where your human resources are coming from and where they need to go as a group and as individuals. You know where you're short handed on talent and ideas, where you're strong. You have an active plan to ensure that you're keeping the pipeline filled, you're financially and intrinsically rewarding people, motivating them through leadership—not "the stick"—and ensuring you're not permitting anyone to abuse those resources by burning them out until they quit or fall into sobbing puddles on the floor. You fight for your staff with zest equal to your fight for your organization's purpose, but you also give people specific performance benchmarks and then hold them accountable for reaching those benchmarks, delivering predictable consequences should they fail.
- You get it. By that I mean that, whether you're a front-line service delivery person or a business school leader, you know what your constituents need and want and your organization's place in making that happen. You understand the various choices, what works, and why some things don't work. You've participated in where the lines in the sand are drawn and resist the temptation to be everything to everyone.
Born or made, if you want to lead well, you can.
Cheryl Gidley, Gidley Consulting
© 2006, Gidley Consulting
Cheryl Gidley, a former Fortune 35+ executive, is a nonprofit MBA offering management and administration services and counsel. She serves on various boards and committees and is director for several nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Her groundbreaking methodology, The Best of Both WorldsTM, has been featured in Philanthropy News Digest. For more information, go to www.gidleyconsulting.com. Cheryl welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.