Want to be a leader? It’s different than being a manager, or even an entrepreneur. Someone I know recently said, “Entrepreneurs are inspired, but leaders inspire.” I rather like that quote. Leaders do much more than that, but overall, that statement serves as a springboard for conversation.
I believe it’s important for aspiring leaders to realize that leadership involves its own skill set and some very distinct characteristics. Some people come by these naturally, other people learn them, and some people try to learn them but regularly struggle with implementation. Of course, some don’t want to learn them at all. I don’t have a problem with people not wanting to be leaders, especially if they don’t feel called to be one.
One problem I’ve seen in people who have natural leadership skills is sometimes they don’t apply those skills consistently. Hence, they may experience tremendous success on one project but “flail and fail” on another. It’s been my experience that a little coaching or mentoring helps these people identify the skills that work well so they can start using them with determined purpose.
Another problem emerges when people blur the lines between management and leadership. At the core of it all, the role of a manager is first to understand the strengths, blind spots and capabilities of the people on his or her team. From there, managers must work to equip people with the skills and resources they need to do their jobs. Their ultimate goal is efficiency of operations.
The ultimate goal for a leader is organizational effectiveness. That is, working so that the organization is doing the right thing and moving in the optimal direction.
Whether you’re already in a leadership role, want to aspire to leadership, or just want to be able to recognize a good leader when you see one, what follows are some of my thoughts on the essential attributes of an effective leader.
In any organization, a leader is responsible for casting and spreading the vision. Remember that “Leaders inspire” quote from earlier? Here’s where that comes into play. Inspiring others with the organization’s vision includes the ideas of where the organization could or should be going. This is not to say that other people can’t contribute to those ideas, but ultimately it’s the leaders who are responsible for them.
The next attribute for leaders is being aware of what I call the horizon, or what we can expect to happen in the near and/or distant future. This includes the economic horizon, the political horizon, business trends, etc. Again, this isn’t to say people who aren’t in leadership roles shouldn’t be looking at the horizon, but ultimately it’s those in leadership who are responsible for being aware of what’s coming down the pike.
The third attribute is understanding the organization’s capabilities. In other words, leaders are ultimately responsible for what their organizations can do, so they must be aware of the limitations and capabilities of just about everything: Equipment, personnel, and even policies and procedures.
The above list forms the core of what a leader is given, but to be effective, leaders must do something with all of that. To start, let’s talk about coalescing ideas while keeping an eye on the horizon.
Effective leaders don’t hold their vision and ideas close to their chest. They share them with people throughout the organization. Whether that happens one-on-one or in small groups, formally or informally, leaders should discuss the horizon and the ideas of where the company could or should be going. Then they should actively solicit feedback from others.
An analogy might help. Picture the leader as the pilot of the plane, flying at 35,000 feet. At that height, the leader sees a lot of forests, so his/her perspective is generally “forest.” What’s tough to figure out at that altitude is what’s going on down in the forest, and that’s why it’s so critical that a leader collect and evaluate feedback from all levels.
Think of it this way: Just because someone is in a leadership role doesn’t mean he or she is omniscient. Effective leaders seek feedback, and then, based on what they learn, make adjustments as needed. If leaders fail to seek feedback or fail to make adjustments when they’re necessary, the result is often a non-responsive organization that falls behind – and maybe even fails.
Next, I mentioned organizational capabilities. An effective leader actively seeks to enable and advance what his or her teams can do, and then provides the right conditions for them to be able to do it. In most cases, this means approving and funding such efforts.
Think of it this way. When seeking feedback, leaders often learn about new equipment, processes or skills that could help advance the organization toward its goals. An effective leader considers these opportunities – usually by way of a cost-benefit analysis – and then acts to increase operational efficiency when feasible.
If you desire to be an effective leader and these skills do not come naturally to you (and rarely do they come naturally to anybody), I recommend becoming a student of these skills. Obviously, these are only the core of what it means to be an effective leader. Much more must also be learned, and for that I refer you to the plethora of leadership books on the market. But be warned. There’s a lot of “leadership fluff” out there, so beware what you buy. No need to waste your time and money.
Here are a couple of books to get you started. “Six Disciplines Execution Revolution” by Gary Harpst and “Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies” by Nikos Mourkogiannis. Both books are more than a decade old, but each point out timeless truths for anyone seeking to lead or inspire an organization.
Consider what I outlined above as personal practices and the content of the books I recommended as corporate practices. Put it all together and you’re on the road to being an effective leader.
Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. For more than 30 years he’s been working with teams and individuals (1:1 coaching) to help them achieve excellence. He was also teaching Emotional Intelligence since before it was a thing. Reach him on his office phone at 208-375-7606 or through his website at www.MyWorkplaceExcellence.com.