Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What Makes a Great Leader?

In the midst of the investment banking meltdown and a proposed $700B bailout some thoughts on great leadership seem timely.  All too often we assume, perhaps because Keynesian economics postulate that companies operate to benefit themselves, that corporate leaders are destined to react to financial incentives like Pavlovian dogs--eager to perform tricks of decision-making that will result in the highest possible compensation--for themselves.  I don't believe this has to be the case, though often, expectations lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Rather, great leaders are able to overcome these impulses and simply lead, rather than be at best, average managers.  So how does one become a great leader?  The following list of behaviors and attitudes represents my personal observations of those I considered great leaders from over a decade of observation in Fortune 500 companies.  Your thoughts on this list are welcome.  

1)  Frankness -- Great leaders value frankness within their teams and practice it themselves.  This is not to be confused with being inclined to be critical.  Rather, this is a willingness to tackle difficult things, whether business results or personnel problems, openly.  Businesses cannot improve without a clear recognition of what is the problem that prevents excellent performance, and what is the clear path to the solution.  Those inclined to only be critical, perhaps at others' expense, make major problems out of minor ones; and new leaders who are prey to being critical are quick to highlight the mistakes of past leaders or the teams they managed, often with detrimental results.  Being willing to acknowledge that there is a problem and to approach the solution in the most direct manner possible constitutes frankness. 

2)  Understand and address the real issues -- All too often real results within a company are obfuscated by a bewildering array of data.  Executives love to obtain data, to the point where this activity might supercede actually running the business in importance.  Frequently, the vast amounts of data that are generated are used to demonstrate that there is no problem, even if business results are poor.  There should be a clear delineation between what is actually important to know or to do to run the business and those low-value-added activities that are designed to explain.  Don't let the former overwhelm the latter.  

3) Transparency -- Great leaders do not fear scrutiny, either of their decisions or of their process for reaching decisions.  They don't have ulterior motives that cause them to "game" their employees or peers to obtain hidden goals.  

4) Selflessness -- Leaders can't be great if they only serve themselves.  Great leaders focus on the success of the business because it leads to the greatest level of success for all.  They are not troubled if their decisions cause the demise of their own careers, if that is the right thing for the business.  They focus on their teams, peers and superiors before they focus on themselves. Great leaders also don't simply work to maximize the results within their area of responsibility, rather they focus on having the broadest possible impact with their activities.  They abhor succeeding at the expense of others working for the same company. 

5) Thought leadership -- Great leaders have great ideas and are willing and able to create a vision that compels others to follow.  Leaders constantly seed the organization with great ideas and are untroubled about whether they receive credit for it or not.  

6) Empathy -- great leaders can sense how their teams feel and make decisions differently because, not in spite, of it. 

7) Intuition -- great leaders have enough experience to avoid common mistakes, but they also have intuition based upon experience that results in the correct decision being made more often than not.  There is nothing worse than a leader with poor intuition. All of the data analysis in the world can't salvage an unerring aim for the worst of all possible decisions when an array of choices exists.  

8)  Common sens-- Too often common sense is the least trusted approach for making a decision in business.  Managers who love data are quick to adopt nonsensical approaches that defy common sense.  In the corporate world, teams sometimes speak metaphorically of those who seemed to wear "two hats."  That is, the same people who exhibit great common sense when making decisions for themselves become irresponsible or exhibit poor judgement when making decisions for the company.  

9) Don't wait for permission -- Great leaders don't wait to be told to address any issues that might exist.  They constantly identify and solve problems, whether others ask or not.

10)  Recognition of Accomplishments -- Great leaders are quick to recognize the efforts of the many that contributed to success when it is achieved.  

11) Ethics -- Great leaders have strong ethics and will avoid even the appearance of impropriety.  


  1. Such wise words. Great leaders in the Interactive space seem to be few and far between. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I always believe that if one takes care of the really important things, success will follow. That has proven to be the case with all of the exceptional leaders I know. Simon