Last updated: 20 August 2019
What makes for a great leader?
This is a question that has occupied the minds of scholars and practitioners alike for many decades.
People have tried to come up with a magical list of traits that make for a good leader. There have been many such lists over the years, and none of them have stuck. Then people got the idea that whatever skills or knowledge might be needed for successful leadership could be learned.
Thus began the quest for the Holy Grail of which skills and mindsets could be put together in a theory or model of great leadership.
There are dozens of leadership models out there, and some are better than others. Most of them contain flaws of some sort – not accounting for this or that aspect that turns out to be rather important. In the final analysis, great leadership is about a series of paradoxes.
Think about it this way: Should a great leader play to people’s strengths or challenge them to correct their weaknesses?
Should a great leader be more concerned with providing direction or providing support to followers? Should great leaders be modest or willful? Humble or fearless?
Those are all questions with which any leader must grapple. But the questions themselves are wrong. Presenting them as either/or choices sets up a series of false dichotomies.
In each case, the tension between the apparent opposites is where great leadership happens. It is only in a Western framework that people tend to think in terms of binary opposites. The trick to great leadership is living in the creative tension that results when you take a both/and approach rather than an either/or approach.
In other words, the greatest leaders both play to people’s strengths and challenge others to improve on their weaknesses; they provide both direction and support; they are both modest and willful; and are both humble and fearless.
What’s missing from far too many leadership theories and models is an adequate notion of balance in these polarities. Balance is often thought of as some kind of static equilibrium, but no such thing exists in the lived experiences of leaders. Everything is in constant flux and change.
The kind of balance that is needed is a dynamic balance that changes to fit the situation or context of the moment, which may require shifting the balancing point between these apparent opposites.
The prime example of a leader from the political realm that fits the bill of embodying many of the paradoxes of great leadership was Abraham Lincoln. You will find fewer leaders who were more committed, more dogged than he was in doing whatever had to be done to hold the Union together.
And yet he was incredibly humble at the same time, even awkward in his shyness. Lincoln understood the value of living in the creative tension of embracing the paradoxes of leadership.
In fact, he understood this so deeply that he put three people on his cabinet who had previously run against him in the 1860 election: former Missouri Attorney General Edward Bates (as Attorney General), Ohio Governor Salmon Chase (as Secretary of the Treasury), and New York Senator William Seward (as Secretary of State).
They had all been vying for the Republican presidential nomination, highlighting the differences between themselves and Lincoln. But Lincoln could see that these were some of the ablest politicians in the country and wanted them to help hold the country together. It was a huge gamble, but as Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in Team of Rivals, it paid off in spades.
Jim Collins, in his classic business book Good to Great, explored what it was that allowed some companies to move beyond just being good companies to becoming great companies.
One of the factors that came strongly into play was the leadership provided by the CEOs. He specifically describes the good-to-great CEOs as all being cut from the same cloth as Lincoln. Here’s a sampling from the list of the good-to-great CEOs:
- Darwin Smith of Kimberly-Clark
- Colman Mockler of Gillette
- David Maxwell of Fannie Mae
- Ken Iverson of Nucor
- George Cain of Abbott Laboratories
- Charles R. “Cork” Walgreen III of Walgreens
- Alan Wurtzel of Circuit City
How many of these have you even heard of? It’s safe to say very few, if any, which is part of the point. These leaders helped make their companies great because it wasn’t about them; it was about the company.
Not all of these companies have been able to sustain their greatness, but while these CEOs were at the helm, the companies seemed unstoppable. Here are 12 characteristics that are common across these unconventional but great leaders:
- Combined personal humility with intense professional will
- Channeled ego needs away from self and into building the company
- Modest and willful
- Humble and fearless
- The health and future of the company was more important than the wealth or renown of the leader
- Took the time to choose successors who would carry forward the commitment to the company, not to self
- The modesty and humility are not false – they are truly genuine and authentic
- They are not interested in being larger-than-life personalities
- An unwavering resolve to do what must be done to get the results desired
- Are more likely to attribute their success to luck than anything they did themselves. Collins calls this “the window and the mirror,” meaning the good-to-great CEOs look out the window to attribute success, not in the mirror. But when explaining failure, are more likely to look in the mirror at themselves, not out the window to place blame elsewhere.
- More of a plow horse than a show horse
- Self-effacing and understated
You can see why this list of unconventional but great leaders doesn’t have such names on it as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Lee Iacocca, or Jack Welch.
Great leadership is not about big personalities or media-grabbing attention or super-charisma.
And yet the mindset that this is what is required to transform a company persists. Conventional ways of thinking about leadership simply don’t value both sides of the paradoxical great leadership equation.
It’s a shame, really.
You don’t hear much about the greatest corporate leaders because they don’t seek the spotlight, and the spotlight doesn’t seek them because they aren’t “sexy” according to the media’s sensationalistic standards.
Take Lee Iococca as an example of the antithesis of the kind of leadership embodied by the good-to-great CEOs. There’s no question that Iococca’s leadership saved Chrysler from what otherwise would have been certain death.
But he then turned the spotlight on himself, appearing on many talk shows, TV commercials, and even considered a run for president of the US. In the first half of his tenure, the company’s stock rose 2.9 times higher than the general market. But when it became more about his personal brand in the second half of his tenure, the stock plummeted 31% below the market.
This is not mere coincidence.
The big question, of course, is whether or not the style of leadership embodied in Lincoln and the good-to-great CEOs can be learned?
The answer is an unqualified YES.
Can a person learn to be more humble? YES. Can a person learn to be more modest? YES. Can a person learn to rein in the ego and focus on the greater good? YES.
When you focus on the both/and paradox of leadership, you’ll quickly see where your own default style needs work – a little more modesty here, a little more humility there, and so on. It’s not rocket science, but it does take time, effort, and higher degree of thoughtful reflection than most people feel like they have time for.
If you’re the kind of person who naturally leans towards the spotlight end of the spectrum, this will take some real personal development work. The first step is becoming aware of your default modes, and then slowly and deliberately shifting your focus to bring in more of what’s missing.
It’s a journey of self-mastery that any great leader must undertake. Your starting point will determine how much work lies ahead of you, and that’s going to vary widely from person to person.
Some people will have a naturally better disposition or mix of the characteristics of great leaders while others will have to work hard to get there. It is both possible and essential for anyone who wants to be a great leader.