Are great leaders born or bred? Sure, there are those that seem born naturally charismatic who attract followers from the playground all the way to the board room. And as evidenced through many politicians and celebrities, those charismatic, magnetic people can easily self-destruct while many of the quieter, more serious sorts end up in the most responsible positions.
Why? Because there are as many diverse approaches to leadership as there are people, and the style is often situational. Despite style, it’s the fundamental principles of leadership that endure over time.
Too often, leadership is confused with management. Leadership and management are two entirely separate things, but the tendency to group them together can lead to confusion for those looking to take on a leadership role.
Management is about completing tasks in the most efficient way possible. This can mean developing and managing resources, including employees. The main goal is to streamline processes and improve return on investment with the bottom line always in mind.
Leaders, on the other hand, focus on blazing the path to new territory. They aren’t overly concerned with the details of how they are going to get to where they want to go. Instead, they tend to focus on what they can achieve when they reach their goals. They think about the future, not how to get better results from current processes.
A recent example of good leadership can be taken from the late Steve Jobs, who lead Apple into new territory by focusing on the development of products that were the first of their kind. He didn’t concern himself, at least initially, with the manufacturing process of iPhones. Instead he focused on communicating his vision to his top employees, leading them in the development of the technology that would make it possible. He had a single-minded focus on creating the products he saw as being the future of Apple.
That’s leadership. Overseeing the supply chain and logistics of getting the iPhone from the manufacturing floor to market is also important, but that’s management.
Effective Leadership Begins with Certain Character Traits
There are certain character traits vital to those wishing to become great leaders. There are no shortcuts that can substitute for these qualities – working to develop them is the price a good leader pays to become successful.
Honesty. A person who fakes his or her way through professional life can, admittedly, succeed for a time. But eventually employees and peers detect the cracks in the façade. Honesty about where a leader wants to take an organization and transparency in the methods used to achieve it are central to the success of any good leader. Think, for example, of politicians – the most effective are those who have clear objectives and are elected by a majority who agree with those objectives. Those who say one thing during the campaign and do another when in office often find themselves in trouble with voters.
Forward-looking. Leaders do not dwell in the past, on mistakes or successes. Leaders look toward the future and ascertain the best direction for the company, based on the core values of the leader and organization. They are concentrating on where they can go, not where they have been, both as individuals and as leaders of the company.
Intelligent and inspiring. Nobody wants to follow someone who is clearly not caught up on the latest happenings not only in their industry, but in business strategy as a whole. Staying smart in these areas is a necessity for a leader. Being an inspiration is a tougher task, but if a person bases decisions on reasoned thought and not emotion, and also shows the sort of dedication and stamina under duress that others will find admirable, they are on their way to becoming inspirational leaders.
Broad-minded. While the ultimate goal is always in mind, a good leader also seeks out a diverse set of people from whom to seek advice and who also have input on the final strategy.
Leadership Methods Can Vary by Situation
There are as many different variations on good leadership as there are good leaders. For example, Microsoft’s Bill Gates became known for utilizing an intense, analytical style in governing his employees. His superior vision and ability to build a winning, cutting-edge management team lead to a culture of excellence at Microsoft, which dominated the computer industry for decades.
Others excel at creating empathy for the customer. Jeff Brazos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is famous for requiring managers at all levels of the company – including himself and his executive team – to spend two days a year in the call center, listening to customers and learning about their experience interacting with the online retailer.
Despite the fine-grain details and differences in leadership styles, most fall into one of several categories. The best leaders often use a combination of two or more of the following methods.
Authoritarian. This is the method in which a leader decides how things will be done, then effectively communicates it to the employees. This is not to be confused with bossing people around, which is something a good leader never does. Rather, in this case the leader knows the ultimate goal clearly without needing outside advice.
Democratic. Here, the leader seeks advice from others before formulating a plan. This method works well when a leader wants to get buy-in from employees. However, leaders should not appear indecisive or in need of others to provide them with direction and ideas.
Delegate. Some leaders also choose to delegate authority to others for certain areas of the business operation. This can be necessary for larger businesses and not so effective in smaller operations where a more hands-on approach might be necessary.
Whatever style a leader chooses, the important thing is to stay true to the core traits and values that make a leader who he or she really is. Employees will be able to see the authenticity and will respond.