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Define Your Path

What Does It Take to Be a Leader

Cartoon of two groups of businessmen in row boats. One leader angrily points; one leader rows.

So what does it really take to be a leader? With the bloated CEO salaries we are seeing in the news these days that can be a multi-million dollar question. To be honest, however, only a small number of leaders bring in the seven and eight figure incomes. Moreover, our discussion isn’t really about how to end up as chairperson of a Fortune 500. It is about what differentiates a leader from someone in the crowd. What makes someone able to drive a group to a desired set of outcomes? What allows someone to exhibit true leadership?

There are frankly so many different opinions about what it takes to be a leader that it would take multiple books (much less one blog post) to even begin to cover the topic. In fact, just type the words “leader” or “leadership” into the Amazon search function. The number of books that come up is staggering. There is the theoretical guidance provided by people like Warren Bennis in his On Becoming a Leader (1989). There are the practical recommendations of people like Mike Thompson in The Anywhere Leader (2011) and Jeffery Fox in How to Become the CEO (1998). There is even the borderline sociopathic approaches recommended by Robert Greene in The 48 Laws of Power (1998), but for karma sake we’re going to leave that last one alone.

Scanning these different approaches, however, there do seem to be some common themes. The first theme is that leaders expect the best from themselves and help others be their best as well. As anyone who ever played high school sports can attest, coaches are always talking about the importance of ‘senior leadership’ on their teams. What they mean by this is having people who lead in both word and deed. Leaders are the first ones on the field and the last ones off. The ones who never quit and won’t let others quit either. They are focused on the success of the team, not only on making themselves look good.

Leaders do this by staying true to our second theme, which is to stay motivated and motivate others. Have you ever seen a true leader who wasn’t always ‘on’? Me either. Ever seen a true leader who wasn’t inspiring those around them, no matter how challenging the task? Neither have I. Now this doesn’t mean that leaders are unnaturally hyperactive Pollyanna’s. Most great leaders I have known are exhausted at the end of the day. Many are concerned and even stressed about how best to lead their teams to the desired goals. They’re honest with their teams when they have such concerns, but they don’t get bogged down with worry and doubt. Instead they focus on finding the solutions, and they do so with zeal.

The third and final theme that seems to be constant across the texts is that leaders are not shy about letting the world know about their accomplishments, and they are even less shy about letting the world know about their teams’ accomplishments. When sharing these successes they rarely use the subjective personal pronoun I, but always say we. Interestingly, this focus on sharing the success of the team is one of the ways that leaders accomplish the second theme we discussed above. It is a simple fact of human nature, that people like being recognized for their hard work. People also really dislike it when others take credit for their hard work. Good leaders understand that, and apply it to how they interact with their teams.

So does this mean these are the only three common themes across leadership? The answer is absolutely not. There are other ideas around things like vision, communication, and responsibilities that are also key parts of the leadership skill-set. Depending on which approach we consider and how it is applied, however, those skills may be subsets of the three themes we have discussed here or mixed in with others. These three themes are important because they are aligned with some of the key ideas of servant leadership, which is what we will begin looking at next time.

References

Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Fox, J.J. (1998). How to become the CEO: The rules for rising to the top of any organization. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Greene, R. (1998). The 48 Laws of Power. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Thompson, M. (2011). The anywhere leader: How to lead and succeed in any business environment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard. He is currently a Practice Area Lead with Beacon Associates.