What Makes a Great Leader?

Posted 12.15.2020

Last week I had a thoughtful client ask me a question I don’t get asked very often – What makes a great leader? Since, as an executive coach, I’m usually the one asking the questions, she caught me off guard with hers. What followed next was a quick real-time distillation of long-held thoughts and observations on the nature of true leadership.

We had a really engaging conversation on the topic and, since I view this blog as a way to include you in the conversation, I want to share a recap of what we talked about. As we look back on a year when we’ve seen the impact of both stellar and dismal leadership take center stage this feels like a good time to step back and set our bearings for 2021.

Here, then, are my observations on what makes a great leader. It’s not an exhaustive list and is certainly open to debate. These are the conclusions I’ve come to after spending most of my life so far either leading others or advising, coaching, developing and observing leaders. I would love to hear your own observations in the comments on LinkedIn or through a personal note.

They’re non-heroic – With rare exception, the great leaders are not cut from heroic cloth. We are often presented with models of leadership that turn on heroic moments like Henry V’s “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” speech at Agincourt or George W. Bush standing on the rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn in his hand. Moments like these are galvanizing for sure, but they’re moments nonetheless. I suspect that the total elapsed time of moments like that in a presidency or premiership or the tenure of a CEO are usually measured not in days or hours but in minutes. Some leaders are never even presented with the opportunity to act in such visibly heroic ways and end up being among the most effective. For those fortunate enough to be well-led, including team members in many of my client organizations, this year has happily shown the benefits of leaders who consistently do the work of non-heroic leadership.

They do the work – My own shift in moving away from the heroic model of leadership started in graduate school under the tutelage of two powerful mentors in my life, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy. Ron and Marty have done seminal work over the decades on what they call adaptive leadership. It’s the practice of leading a group in adapting to and addressing the impact of significant change. There has probably been no year in living memory that has called for adaptive leadership more than 2020. Sadly, the leadership failures this year have been historic but there have been others that are shining examples for the future. One of those would be the leadership of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Early on in the pandemic, Arden defined the work for her “team of 5 million” as coming together to keep each other safe. As University of Auckland professor Siouxsie Wiles described it, Arden “never put us on a war footing. Everything was about collaboration, working together, positive language — rather than fear. ‘We’re a team of 5 million,’ I think it was very powerful.” One thing that Heifitz and Linsky drilled into me and the rest of their students is that the opposite of doing the work is work avoidance. In contrast to Arden and others, we’ve also seen the impact of leaders engaging in work avoidance this year that’s led to lost lives, lost jobs and lost opportunities to work together.

They’re long-haul grinders – Great leaders are not flash in the pan people; they’re long-haul grinders. They understand that, because the environment is always changing, leading a group or a team through change is a long-term process. That requires modulation and perspective on the part of the leader. Ron Heifetz compares leadership to a pressure cooker. He points out that using a pressure cooker requires attention and adjustments. If you don’t apply enough heat, the food doesn’t get cooked. If you apply too much, the pressure cooker explodes. Great leaders have learned that lesson. They take the longer view and pay attention to the amount of pressure they’re applying over time to themselves and others.

They define reality while offering hope – Great leadership requires the courage to call things as they actually are while leading the group along the path to a better future. Napoleon described it as defining reality, then offering hope. Practicing this approach to leadership is the reason Dr. Anthony Fauci polled with a 72 percent approval rating at the end of October. The head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been both relentless and undeterred this year in sounding the alarm about what’s been coming with COVID-19 while offering reality-based steps that everyone can take to create a better future for themselves, their families and their neighbors. He’s consistently done that in the face of a lack of support from the top and death threats against him and his family. That’s what great leadership looks like. It’s encouraging to know that the majority of people appreciate that.

They drive for results and build relationships – I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the best leaders are equally attentive to driving results and building relationships. They understand that, over the long-run, you can’t get the first without attending to the second. It’s a similar dynamic to what Good to Great author Jim Collins describes as Level 5 Leadership – the combination of fierce resolve and deep humility. There was a wonderful example of that results and relationships Level 5 approach in last weekend’s deeply reported Wall Street Journal article on how the U.S. pharma giant Pfizer and the much smaller German firm BioNTech partnered together to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine in under eleven months.  Recognizing that he needed a bigger partner to scale his mRNA vaccine technology, BioNTech CEO and co-founder, Ugur Sahin, called Pfizer’s head of vaccine research, Kathrin Jansen, on March 1 to ask for help and propose a partnership. Her response was immediate, “This is a disaster, and it’s getting worse. Happy to work with you.” The drive for results and the humility required to ask for help and give it when asked led us to where we are today with, as I write this, health care workers in the U.S. having the vaccine injected in their arms just ten and a half months after that phone call. A stunning timeline when the typical timeline for vaccine development has been ten years.

They’re the best boss you ever had – This last characteristic of great leaders is a summation of thousands of answers I’ve heard in response to a request I’ve made of my clients for many years now; think of the best boss you’ve ever had and then tell me the reason they were your best boss. Invariably, the answers add up to the perfect description of the kind of leader you’d love to be led by. They have your back. They support you. They provide direction. They celebrate your success. They stretch you in good ways. They give you latitude to act. They share what they know. The list goes on and on but you get the idea. Or, if you need more, think of your own best boss ever and list the reasons they were. If you really want to make a difference as a leader in 2021, go forth and be that kind of person.

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