What are the essential components of being a good leader? David W Sorich tells of his quest to find the most fundamental qualities.
After taking courses, reading articles and books, participating in team sports and in the Boy Scouts — and, even after serving as an officer in the US Navy and as a manager in the private sector — I still find it difficult to answer a basic question in simple terms: What are the qualities of a good leader?
Usually, those who try to answer that question overload those who seek an answer. I once was handed a document with 18 leadership lessons titled, ‘A Leadership Primer’, by General Colin Powell, the former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff who also served as Secretary of State. The first thing I thought was, “How can I remember 18 lessons?” They were very good lessons, but a list of 18 points about anything is a lot to remember.
Such overload is indicative of everything else that I have encountered on the subject. I have always felt that there had to be something more encompassing and, yet, shorter: an answer that one could recall easily and deploy quickly. My search for a simple answer became my quest to develop a simple answer.
The number ‘three’ has always been magical for the basic fact that almost everyone can remember three things. Three points, then, became my target in terms of coming up with the qualities of a true leader. I would accept no more, maybe even fewer. I spent many years adding to a personal laundry list of leadership attributes. Ultimately, I had to narrow it down to three or fewer, and I understood why there were so many lengthy lists. It’s far easier to describe leaders in dozens of ways rather than in a set of three essentials.
From the start, I insisted that my final list had to make intuitive sense. It had to feel right to me even if no one completely agreed with my set of qualities. Eventually, I started to feel that I was getting close to an answer that felt right to me. At one point, I said to myself that a leader follows the ‘Golden Rule’ (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”), operates with a K.I.S.S. mindset (“Keep it simple, stupid.”) and sets a standard of behaviour that all others could follow.
Before I presented this list to the world as what I believe about the essence of leadership, I set out to get some friendly feedback from others. I emailed some friends and asked them, “What would you choose for three leadership attributes?” Happily, I have friends with a wide (and impressive) range of experience: from executive-level corporate officers to supervisors, from military realms to private enterprises to academia — and from the point of view of many different job functions, from human resources to operations. Their inputs were very interesting and certainly challenged my own conclusions.
I weighed all that they shared with me and concluded that my private list of three qualities lacked something. After a few sleepless nights, it hit me that I had somehow left out the emotion required to be a good leader. I asked myself, “How can you be a good leader if you have the emotions of a robot?” I also realised that there was nothing on my list that covered character. My friends and associates shared with me the importance of traits such as honesty, humility and integrity. They were attributes that I had on my original, much longer candidate list, but they didn’t make my top three. In the end, my search for simplicity and accuracy distilled to these three qualities.
For me, this means that leaders show passion about what they are doing, every day. They have joy in getting out of bed and feel excited for the work they do. Think of a mentor or teacher whom you always admired. Why did you choose that person? Chances are they had passion for what they did and what they believed in.
Additionally, leaders have such a pure love for what they do that they would rather see their company leave the market than compromise its principles. Leaders love what they and their organisations do to the point that they would never allow complacency in themselves or in others. They love what they do to the extent that they are always looking to improve how they and their teams achieve the goals that they set.
Lastly, leaders care for their associates, employees and followers. Leaders know that they need to support those who are required for the work and the progress that needs to be made. Leaders are there for their teams, not the other way around. Thus, they treat their team members as they would want to be treated, putting themselves in the shoes of their followers. They also communicate with team members in the way that the leaders themselves would want to be informed.
I had a chemistry teacher in high school who loved chemistry, loved teaching and loved students. When he taught, he would get excited about every subject, and it would be infectious. He would rather walk the room and help with assignments and lab work than sit at his desk. He was thrilled when the ‘light would come on’ and a struggling student would newly understand the scientific point that baffled him or her earlier. He was always there for everyone. He was a leader.
This is where most people posing as leaders fail the test. How often do we criticise our politicians for being morally bankrupt, yet keep voting them into office? US President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “When they call the roll in the Senate, the senators do not know whether to answer ‘present’ or ‘not guilty’.” Have things changed in 100 years? Not to my mind. How many people have we viewed as great leaders but under the test of time have come up short due to a lie, a cheat or a steal?
Leaders must possess honesty, integrity, humility and selflessness. In this way, they become persons of character, people whose words are their bond. They are people you could actually trust with your life. Leaders are people who find it abominable to be arrogant, complacent or selfish — or to lie, cheat or steal. They desire to follow the intent of the law as opposed to the letter of the law. Why? Leaders believe it is the right thing to do and would never sacrifice their reputation for any amount of personal gain.
As Sir Winston Churchill put it, “All great things are simple, and many can be expressed in single words: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.” That single word, character, became for me the second touchstone to the essence of leadership.
It’s not enough for a leader to set a standard. He or she must present a guiding principle, or mission statement, that includes a directional voice. There needs to be a big picture view of the world and what everyone on the leader’s team is trying to accomplish in it.
Once that vision is set, leaders bring it down to the level at which people can work on tasks that, when executed and combined, actually achieve the vision. As a result, leaders set goals and the shorter, simpler, more definitive and realistic those goals are, the better. Then, too, leaders love setting stretch goals. They don’t set goals that are easy, but they are also aware that there is a point at which a stretch goal crosses the line into insanity. They therefore don’t saddle their teams with a vision and goals that are patently not achievable. Little is more demoralising than being tasked to achieve a goal that is in the realm of insanity. People can tell the difference between stretch and insanity. Leaders don’t underestimate people’s intelligence.
What they do is create, via the vision and the goals tied to it, an appetite in the team to make something great happen. Leadership guru Stephen Covey once observed, “While managers must focus on the bottom line, leaders must look to the top line for clear vision and direction.” This remains one of the best distinctions between a manager and a leader that I have ever come across. Managers are, by necessity, wrapped in the daily drive to check off all those tasks-to-be-done boxes. The leaders are those who provide the overarching vision that converts hundreds of tasks into one major accomplishment.
And while this third point about leaders begs the question of whether there is a fourth and fifth point (or more) that must be listed to profile the traits of a true leader, the more I ponder and look for flaws in my list, I have not found them. I do believe that the closer I get to perfecting my delineation of these three points, the better person and, hopefully, leader I may become.
What is leadership? Love. Character. Vision. If you have these three, you will not be found lacking.