Effective leadership – where do good leaders come from?

Posted by on June 3, 2013

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I find leaders fascinating!
I want to know what makes them ‘tick’, and why they want to be leaders.
I also like to look for the things that allow some people to be ‘effective leaders’, while others are not.

If we take a look, leaders are everywhere.  We have leaders in our local communities, in sport, in business, and in politics (of course).  Even most family groups have their leaders – a matriarch or patriarch figure.  Without leaders, our society would probably disintegrate.

Are you a leader in any of these levels?  The probability is that most of us will fit in there somewhere.  I have been a leader in a number of community groups, and also a leader in several business units.

Over my years as a consultant, I have worked in a number of organisations and across several industries.  This has allowed me to observe many ‘leaders’ and their styles, from the “C” level to front-line supervisors.  Two standouts for me are:

  • there are many managers who do not make effective leaders
  • when times are hard, effective leadership can be a rare commodity

There is a whole industry built around leadership – with various leadership academies all over the world.  I find it interesting that there are many different theories about leadership, and there are also many different ideas about what makes a leader.  Let’s clear this up a bit by working through a few questions about leaders.

What makes a leader?

The word leader means literally ‘one who leads’ (a group, an organisation, a nation).  For me, the key to being a leader is very simple – a leader has followers (in this sense, a follower is a supporter).  Followers may be following for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • it is a part of their job to follow their leader
  • they have a belief in the leader and in their cause
  • they are afraid of the consequences of not following

What do leaders do?

Effective leaders influence their followers to achieve something.  They do this by providing direction, encouragement, motivation, and sometimes inspiration.  So, if we are a leader, then we are in the ‘people’ business.  And this means the better our ‘interpersonal’ skills, the more likely it is that we will be an effective leader.

Diagram shows the key techniques used by effective leaders to influence their followers: direction, encouragement, motivation, and inspiration

Effective leaders influence their followers by providing direction, encouragement, motivation, and inspiration

Where does leadership happen?

For some, being a leader is a 24/7 occupation (e.g. political and business leaders), for others it may be part-time (e.g. sports team, community organisation).  Leadership may even be spontaneous, such as on-the-spot organising actions in an emergency situation.

Many organisations include ‘leadership’ as a workplace performance measure – even for positions that have no leadership responsibilities.  This is because leadership opportunities can arise with various tasks and small projects, allowing ‘talent spotting’ and grooming of potential future leaders.

What is an effective leader?

An effective leader is one who keeps the support of their followers, while also successfully achieving whatever they set out to do.  This might be stating the obvious, but think about how often we see leadership changes in politics, in business organisations, and even in sports teams because the leader has lost support.

The demands of full-time leadership in particular can cause considerable stress, which is why some leaders appear to burn out.  Many leaders also describe how being a leader can be a lonely experience.

How does someone become a leader?

For many, being a leader is a part of their job, e.g. a Team Leader.  The same can apply in a sports team or community organisation (e.g. Team Captain, Scout Leader).

But, being called a leader doesn’t automatically make someone into a leader.  Leaders must act as leaders – otherwise there won’t be any followers.

The good news is that we can learn how to be leaders – leadership is not an accident of birth.  Remember, effective leadership is about influencing people.  To do this, we need to develop and apply our interpersonal skills (e.g. communication, decision-making, problem solving, networking, collaboration, conflict resolution, mentoring, etc.), which will help us to become effective leaders.

Examples of leaders

Political leaders are generally the most visible examples of leaders.  Some political leaders are good, some are not so good (and some are terrible!).  Names of influential global leaders from the last 50 years would include (in no particular order):  Mao Tse-tung, Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro, Charles de Gaulle, Mikail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Lee Kuan Yew, Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Saddam Hussein.

While not all of these are/were good people, every one of them has left their ‘mark’ on the pages of history.  On the list, we have (in order): a peasant farmer, an actor, a revolutionary, a soldier, another peasant, a grocer’s daughter, a lawyer, a royal, another lawyer, a rock music promoter, and a  school teacher.  Many of these come from quite ordinary backgrounds – which shows that being a leader is open to all of us.

One of the most amazing global leaders of recent times would have to be Nelson Mandela.  A while back I came across a TIME Magazine article from July 2008: Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership.  The author, Richard Stengel (now Managing Editor of TIME), describes each of Mandela’s points:

No. 1.  Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it

No. 2.  Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind

No. 3.  Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front

No. 4.  Know your enemy — and learn about his favourite sport

No. 5.  Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer

No. 6.  Appearances matter — and remember to smile

No. 7.  Nothing is black or white – practical solutions may require compromise

No. 8.  Quitting is leading too – as long as you do it on your own terms

I have summarised these in this .PDF file, which can be viewed in a new Tab (or as a download on a mobile).  The complete TIME article, which is probably about a 12-15 minute read, can be found at:

Our first free nugget for this Post is a TIME video (3mins:05sec), Nelson Mandela’s Life and Leadership narrated by Rick Stengel:

Our second free nugget is an April 2013 Forbes Post: What Is Leadership? by Kevin Kruse, who writes about ‘wholehearted leadership’.  This is an interesting perspective on leadership; however, I would take issue with Kruse’s somewhat simplistic dismissal of Peter Drucker’s leadership definition.  My military background tells me that Kruse’s analogy is so unlikely that it borders on the absurd; that said, Kruse does raise some very valid points here – food for thought (about a 4-4½minute read):

The next free nugget is an August 2012 Tom Peters video: My Insights on Leadership (3mins:20sec); Tom is one of my favourites – his passion is compelling (wouldn’t you like to work for the sort of organization that he is describing here?):

And for good measure, the final free nugget is another Tom Peters video (June 2011): LEADERSHIP: Lead by Example (2mins:30sec); here Tom is talking to anyone who is a leader, no matter what level they are at:

Coming next:  Electronic Text vs Paper – which is better?  (in the meantime, enjoy the free nuggets!).


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