What Is A Leader?



“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Maya Angelou


In my continued quest for professional improvement, I have again turned to books for inspiration.  Like many others, my aspiration includes becoming a more effective leader. In order to do that, I thought it was important to understand the attributes that great leaders share. Of course, my quest is to be a great leader not just a good one. You might call this my search for “leadership enlightenment.”  With that in mind, I downloaded three new ebooks to my iPad, No Fear Of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal With Risk…, by Gary Burnison, The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership, also by Gary Burnison, and The CIO Edge 7 Leadership Skills You Need to Drive Results, by Waller and Rebenstrunk.

Each of these books has a focus on the leadership qualities that make a great “C” level executive – CIO, CTO, or CEO.  Being a “C” level leader is not really within my career aspirations, but my thought was that if I was focusing on leadership skills, why not look at what makes these “C” ones great. As my reading has progressed, (yes, I do read three books at one time, you could say I have a lack of focus, note to self –must work on that) I am learning that all of the great leaders share several common attributes.  These attributes include; how they deal with risk, how they communicate, how they embrace their softer side, and how they think analytically but act collaboratively. There are other commonalities, but I found these to be the most meaningful for me.

On the topic of dealing with risk, great leaders move forward with no fear of failure. They are comfortable with ambiguity, complexity, and change. It’s not that they take risk lightly, they just accept it and understand that they will sometimes fail. To take an excerpt from the book, No Fear Of Failure, “the most important aspect of failure is not the moment of defeat or loss. Rather, it is what happens the moment after failure occurs and a choice is presented: to allow fear or shift from setback to lesson learned….” leaders who are great “exhibit tremendous courage around the possibility and even the inevitability at times of failure.. they strive for what is possible rather than become paralyzed by the risk of failure.”

From reading these books, it was also interesting to learn that these same great leaders are exceptional communicators. To paraphrase, they listen, learn, and lead.  They realize that they are in the “people business.” They understand that in order to succeed they must develop the ability to inspire others and be able to effectively communicate a sense of mission and purpose.

When it comes to embracing their softer side, I was surprised to see that this was focused on as important. Not because I don’t think it is important, but because I did not think that anyone who was at this level found it was important to their overall success. Let me clarify a bit, this does not mean being a “softie” what it does mean is understanding that in order to be effective you need to “lead, inspire, and guide people – that you can help them to do and become more than their own vision for themselves…. At its best, leadership is a vocation, a calling. It is a heavy responsibility that far outweighs the privileges, calling to mind the words that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. At the heart of it, leadership is how you make others feel. “

As I read on and came to how you needed to think analytically but act collaboratively I was at first slightly confused.  Putting this into an example from my day-to-day life helped me to understand this better. I realized that what I might need to work on when faced with a challenging problem was to let the “thinker” in me first work through the problem from an analytical point of view and then let  the “feeler” in me take over and give ownership to the team to collaboratively work on the solution.

I would recommend that if you want to sharpen your leadership skills or move forward on the road from good to great as a leader, you might want to invest in one of these books.   You should also remember that as Burnison says “leadership is like life, it is a journey.”

As I continue my journey, I know I have a lot to work on, not the least of which is to listen more than I talk so that I can learn and then lead, to be aware that as a leader I must rise above the “I” and focus instead on the “we,” and most importantly for me I must be aware that as a leader people look at me differently and gauge many things by my overall demeanor and that the people around me will read my mood like tea leaves.

I started this by asking the question, what is a leader? What I have come to understand is that leadership itself is about grace, dignity, and restraint. How you say things is almost more important than what you are saying.  As a leader, people look to you for direction and assurance. And lastly, as a leader you must move beyond “what must be done” to “why we’re doing this.”  This last is what Burnison cites as the essential difference between being a manager and being a leader.


One thought on “What Is A Leader?

  1. Lots to think about and reflect on my past interactions. I have not always been the leader as I have fallen into the manager mode too often. Not all is lost. I can continue to listen and learn

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