I have already discussed the traits of leaders in comparison to managers: Authentic, courageous, great communicators with vision and charisma. But do leaders come on a continuum of success or are all leaders created equal? History will tell us that there certainly is a continuum. Some leaders go on to accomplish great things, while others flounder and fade away. So what makes great leaders? It is the ability to understand it’s not about me, it’s all about you.
Great leaders create a vision that’s meaningful to you – Leaders create visions, what they believe the organization should aspire to be. But a vision alone is not change. The vision has to be applied to everything an organization does in order to create a significant change. This is why great leaders know that in order for their vision to succeed; they must have the buy in of their employees. And they do that through creating a context.
- Adaptive perspective: “The contextual lens [leaders] create is often focused on a desired outcome. They help the team envision the ultimate goal and then challenge their brightest teammates to build strategies to get there regardless of current adversities,” said Mike Maddock in his article on Forbes. To provide the context, leaders have to think from their employees’ perspectives. They must start first by asking questions like, “How will this impact the day to day work of my employees?” or “Why should this matter to the individual?” Through questions like these, leaders can form the context that makes a vision truly meaningful.
- “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” This was Simon Sinek’s take on what makes great leaders inspire actions. And it’s true, over and over; we see that the most engaged employees are the ones who believe in the organization’s values – not the ones who are paid the most, not the ones who know the most, the ones who believe the most. When John F. Kennedy spoke at his inauguration in 1961, he was facing strained relations with Cuba and a war against communism. However, he didn’t tell the nation to go enlist, instead he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” This now famous quote is an example of how great leaders can motivate desired behaviors through speaking to shared beliefs and values, in this case civic duty, instead of simply an end goal.
Great leaders work to make you successful – Leaders are often measured on numbers: the quantity of widgets they sold, the money they made, the expenses they cut. But great leaders know that to create results, they have to first create great people.
- Bring out the best in others: By creating an environment that encourages growth, innovative ideas, and mutual trust, great leaders can create great employees. Employees have to feel safe enough to take on challenges and try new things. You can’t teach a child to ride a bike through a Power Point presentation (on slide 1, see how you brake). It has to be done through experience. It may be scary, slightly dangerous, and they may fail completely, but through that practice they will learn and excel. The same applies to employees.
- Prepare for the future: A day will come when leaders will be ready to leave and someone else must take their place. A true test of a great leader is the success of the organization when they aren’t around. Great leaders prepare their organization for longevity, and a future that is not dependent on one person today, but on the people who will be here tomorrow.
There are leaders and there are great leaders, and likely many in between. Great leaders understand and act on the belief “it’s not about my success, it’s about yours,” because they know that their own success is entirely dependent on the people around them.