It often seems as though great leaders are born not made. Sometimes the qualities of a great leader just seem to spring fourth from who that person is. However, it should stand that anyone can become a great leader by following the examples of past ones. In this essay we will examine some qualities of great leaders and what makes them so good.
Our look at what makes a good leader is broken down into three parts. First we will list and examine three qualities that can be found in almost every great leader. Without them one cannot effectively lead small or large groups of people. Second there is an example from the author’s own experience. Sometimes real life examples are the best ways to describe personal qualities. Lastly, we will critique a quote from a famous scholar of leadership. This quote highlights a very interesting difference between leaders and managers.
A key characteristic of an excellent leader is vision. It is the leader’s responsibility to guide their followers, whether they are leading a company or a family, into the future. The leader must look at the big picture of the world and head in a solid direction. A good example of this is Richard Branson, the head of Virgin Airways. He keeps leading his company in new smart directions that always catch the public eye. One of his most recent visions is taking paying passengers up to space for a few minutes of zero gravity (Schwartz, 2008). A leader must be constantly coming up with innovative new ideas.
Another quality that almost all great leaders posses is the courage to take risks. This of course goes hand-in-hand with being able to calculate risk as well. Richard Branson is a good example of a leader that knows good risks to take. An example of this is Virgin’s recent endeavor into bio-fuel powered jets (Clark, 2008). Being willing to take risks like this shows that Mr. Branson posses other top leadership qualities like self-confidence and the willingness and ability to make really big decisions.
The ability to make decisions with a huge scope of effect is a third requisite leadership quality. Leaders are responsible for the fate of their companies, teams, and all the members therein. Knowing this in full, a leader must still be able to make extremely important decisions quickly, or their organization will not survive. Even in a very flat-structured democratic organization, there is still the need for someone to direct discussion and finalize decisions.
Vision, courage to take risks, and fast decision making ability — together these three qualities are essential to a great leader. This is because they must see the direction to head in, make the decision to do it, and exude endless confidence all along the way.
One great boss that I had did not act like a boss and was more of a teacher. When someone was not doing something right, or even messing up a serious task, they would not get mad. Instead of telling the person all about what they did wrong, the boss would spend extra time working around that person to help them out. Often they would not even directly interfere with the person’s normal tasks, they would just be there to answer questions and catch mistakes. When the person took a break or was working on a specific part of their job, the boss would step in and perform the parts of the job they were messing up. It seems this helped people learn in a number of ways. First, no one wanted to mess up because it meant the boss would be paying special attention to you for a while. Secondly, if you were afraid to ask questions or for help, you could just let the boss perform a task you were having trouble with and see how they did it. This way, no one ever felt scolded or put down but everyone was constantly improving.
On one particular occasion, I was having a lot of trouble with the part of my job that involved our computer system. My “boss” had me spend a whole day just hanging out with him while he worked. He spent a lot of time that day doing all sorts of stuff on the computer, including all the parts specific to my job. The whole time he talked about what he was doing and exactly how and what else could be done from there. I learned a lot about the computers, and from then on didn’t have nearly as much trouble as I had before. It was really nice because I got sort of a day off, or at least on break, and at the same time got much better at my job. This seems like a much better way to lead than bossing people around and chewing them out when they mess up.
It has been said that “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things” (Bennis, 1985). This is an excellent description of the difference between managing and leading. A good comparison of the two is the partnership of Barack Obama and Betsy Myers, Obama’s chief operations officer for his campaign (Joni, 2008). Obama is the leader, he has to come up with the overall game plan and make the big decisions. Myers makes that plan and those decisions a reality. Obama must do the right things to get himself into office, make the right speeches, take the right stands on issues, etc. Myers must similarly make sure everything gets done properly, on schedule, and within budget. Their goal is the same, but they must do very separate things for them both to get there. The leader must determine the right things to do, and the manager must figure out how to do them right.
What is interesting about this leader-manager dichotomy is that both of them really need the other. Additionally, any given person is usually much better at one than the other. Maybe this in itself is a quality of a great leader? Earlier it was mentioned that a leader must not only be able to take risks, but to also calculate and weigh them. Traditionally risk-management is a very managerial function. Perhaps great leaders like Branson have become so great because of their ability to calculate the risk within each of their visions in order to make the right decisions and therefore “do the right things.” This need to be able to manage as well as lead could be considered a unifying qualifier for the previously stated features of a good leader.
As we can see, leadership is more about vision and guts than detail management. The most important features of a leader are what they project out to their followers. This differs greatly from managers and “bosses” who have to concern themselves with the intricate details of day-to-day operations. However, to be a really good leader one must also be able to manage risk and resources to achieve real success. For a leader to truly be great they must choose the right path and be confident with every step. Only then will as many people as they require follow them.
Schwartz, John (2008, January, 24). Built to Fly Into Space With the Greatest of Ease (They Hope) . New York Times, Retrieved Mar 12, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/24/science/space/24galactic.html
Clark, Nicola (2008, January, 15). Virgin Atlantic Plans a Biofuel Flight. New York Times, Retrieved Mar 12, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/business/15virgin.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=virgin+airlines&st=nyt&oref=slogin
Bennis, Warren and Bert Nanus. Leaders: Their Strategies for Taking Charge. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Joni , Saj-nicole (2008, January, 18). Leadership Profile: Making it Real. Forbes, Retrieved Mar 12, 2008, from http://www.forbes.com/leadership/2008/01/17/myers-campaign-joni-lead-manage-cx_sj_0117obama.html