I remember in the late 1990s meeting with Jeff Bezos at his Amazon headquarters in Seattle. In those days, people were skeptical how far he could take his little online bookstore. While we met and discussed some partnership ideas with his staff, Bezos had an opinion about everything and he was very good at explaining how all his ideas linked to the bigger vision of Amazon. It was clear to me then that Bezos was a teacher and extraordinary strategic thinker. Although his vision was big, he was also good at some little things and operated in a very methodical way. Great leaders are not afraid of making decisions, taking action, and learning by doing mistakes.

I also think Mother Teresa was a great leader. She was a role model for doing what she loved. She never accepted limitations and never strayed from her mission of helping the poorest people of India.This is what a great leader must do, clearly define what you want to accomplish and never stray from the mission.

Bill Gates, a founder of Microsoft, is also a great example of a leader. He combined vision, passion, and customer orientation to make the computer industry what it is today. Great leaders have passion and channel into worthy causes.

Perhaps not as well known, Li Ka Shing is one of Asia’s richest individuals. He tells people he never plans to retire and knows his priorities. He demonstrates high integrity in all his business dealings. These are all important elements of strong leadership.

Finally, Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers, blended a charismatic quality with vision and strong sales skills. Having a vision is important but being able to sell the vision to others is equally important.

From these specific examples, you may have picked up on a few common traits: Great leaders are creative, decisive, and charismatic. Strong leaders understand what is important to them. They are strong at persuading and communicating the vision, which they want others to have. Great leaders display personal mastery and passion for what they lead. They are creating team learning, while keeping everyone moving towards a similar vision. Great leaders are system thinkers. They understand the implications of their decisions and actions on the overall system.

Leadership is about creating and motivating the change, which needs to occur.

“Leaders sell the tickets to the journey, managers drive the bus.”

Styles of Leadership

Different people react differently in leadership positions. Here are three styles of leadership:

  • Fair and democratic: These types of leaders put an extra effort to ensure people are well informed and are part of the team. At times, this type of leader may even act as if he or she is in service to others. Leaders like this are values centered. They let everyone know that what they believe is most important either through their behavior or what they say.
  • Structural and task focused: These leaders focus on the task at hand. The way things are done is more important than the way people feel about how things are done.
  • Authoritative and perhaps political: What is most important to these leaders is that they are in charge, and their actions reflect how they will benefit most.

In my experience people appreciate those leaders who show interest in others, communicate well, listen to their employee, and are willing to make changes based on input from each person.

Leading vs. Managing

Leaders provide vision and inspiration, while helping to motivate others towards a common goal. Leaders are focused on creating, and facilitating ideas and opinions from others. Strong leaders promote collaboration not competition between members of the same team. Most of all, leaders sell tickets for the journey!

Management is different. Managers focus on driving the bus. Strong managers should be focused on planning, organizing, and monitoring. To manage requires subordinates. One can lead without necessarily having subordinates. Sometimes managers have a short-term view and need to be results oriented. While different, good leadership and management are both needed for organizational success.

Delivering Results

Great leaders also know how to manage their time. They continuously develop their personal skills. Most important, great leaders know how to make those they lead feel important. Think of a leader you worked for who made you feel good. This is the effect great leaders have on others. Great leaders think about the effect of the decisions they make. Great leaders are good at coaching, which tends to occur in private and demonstrate high integrity. Great leaders are often great communicators, too. People know where they stand with regards to performance and plans. Great leaders know how to celebrate team success and, as a result, build great teams in the process.

Finding New Leaders

Inventory the team. Identify the right combination of necessary skills. Identify strong leaders who have these skills aligned with their interests. Find out who wants to be a leader, as not all people are interested in leading others. Finally, create new organizational opportunities for new leaders.

Developing Leaders

First, let’s look at three categories of leaders: those, who perform well as leaders; those, who don’t; and those who want to be a leader someday.

The first category already leads people and enjoys what they do. This group just wants to continue to do what they enjoy. In many cases, great leaders have their abilities and interests aligned. The work they do fits their self-image of themselves and their role at work.

For the second group of leaders who are not doing well, the story may be different. It is possible that for this group, there may be a misalignment of challenges and personal skills. It is also possible that these leaders are just working under a broken system, which is impacting their ability to get anything done. Finally, this group just may have poor role models. This group needs coaching, education, and maybe a re-evaluation to find out what is not working. They may need a change with support!

Leaders from the third group, whom I call emerging leaders, are not leading today, but they are motivated to take on more leadership responsibility. These leaders need more opportunities, education, coaching, and some apprenticeship or transition time into new opportunities.

There are many models to become a great leader. It starts with the internal motivation to lead others, the knowledge to do so, and seizing the opportunity.

Craig Nathanson

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