How did great leaders get that way?

by Sam on February 23, 2010

One-Minute Answer:  Two recent email blasts on the biggest mistakes that leaders make, prompted several comments from readers. Most common among them were, “You’ve told us what not to do; now tell us what to do!


One query from a CEO was, “You mentioned an Executive Leadership Academy; what’s that all about?” The five-minute answer below begins to answer his question as well as the requests for a more positive outlook. It reveals the 12 most effective leadership behaviors I’ve had the privilege of observing through twenty years of executive coaching.


Considering a future position of leadership? You’ll learn whether you’re likely to succeed in the endeavor. Already an advancing leader? You’ll discover the transformations to make in order to advance to the next level of influence. Been an established leader for a while? You’ll gain ideas on how to refresh your approach and thereby increase your impact in positive ways.


All of this can happen if you perform the self-assessment at this five-minute answer link.



Five-Minute Answer:  A great leader is two things—both of which are necessary. One, a great leader is someone who people want to follow. Two, a great leader inspires and enables great outcomes from those followers. To become thus great, leaders achieve the twelve actions described below. Have you? Take these two steps to find out and then check the bottom of the page for what to do next.

Step One

Step Two

Find the three descriptions below that your leadership resembles more consistently and completely than the other nine.

Find the three descriptions below that your leadership resembles less consistently and completely than the other nine.


Great leaders have…


1.    Unleashed the power of vision.  They’ve unveiled a glorious cause—one main thing they equip and resource their people to bring about. This is an exciting picture of the future that followers are passionate to pursue. Great leaders embody that vision and live it out, themselves.

2.    Discovered their sweet spot.  They know, according to Pareto’s Law, the 20% of their time and effort that yields 80% of their impact. They are focused on exactly what the people around them most need. They leverage their strengths perfectly. They make the optimal contribution to organizational success—both quantitatively and qualitatively.

3.    Acknowledged their weaknesses.  They have the strength of character to recognize and admit where they come up short. They recruit people to the team that are strong where they are weak. They delegate leadership tasks to those who are better at them. At the same time they work at improving themselves where they need to get better.

4.    Uncovered their demons.  They have confronted their most debilitating fears and insecurities. They may not yet have overcome them completely, but in acknowledging them they are 50% on the way to winning the battle. (As someone once said, “To know ourselves diseased is half our cure.”)

5.    Adjusted their wake.  In his book “Integrity” Henry Cloud talks about the notion of wake. It’s the battering that our waves cause as we enter and then leave the presence of others with our words, actions, decisions, and influence. Great leaders pay attention to that wake and decide either to change it for the better or continue to accept its consequences.

6.    Focused more on the how than the what.  They understand that profit is never a goal; it’s an outcome—an outcome of doing the right things in the right ways. Their leadership spotlights strategic planning, leadership, teamwork, training, core values, culture, and process improvement rather than the numbers to be achieved.

7.    Transmitted values.  Management guru Ken Blanchard claims that only 11% of all corporations world-wide have come to grips with the matter of internal core values. Great leaders bring these to the fore. They ensure that these values are well defined, widely shared, and fully embraced throughout their organization and that they inform everything that they and their people undertake.

8.    Stated clear expectations.  Did you ever have to fire someone? Did you ever get fired? If so, I know why you did. It’s the same reason why anyone is shown the door. Expectations weren’t being met. And the biggest reason they’re not met is that they’re not known. Quality expert Edwards Deming has been quoted on this site for claiming that 80% of all American managers don’t really know what their job is or what their boss considers to be most important within it. Great leaders don’t let people struggle trying to figure out them and the job.

9.    Mustered the courage to hold followers accountable.  Great leaders not only transmit values; they also hold themselves and their people responsible for truly living those values. From top-level executives to hourly clerks, the employees who serve under great leaders are held fully accountable for the outcomes of their performances. Negative consequences await those who fail to meet expectations.

10.  Mustered the compassion to inspire followers.  One of the earliest questions answered on this web site was “What is Servant Leadership?” Before you review the answer, know this. Heart felt compassion for others is a necessity for the servant leader. Too many managers relate to their associates as customers, bosses, peers, and subordinates—pretty much as means to achievement. Until you come to see those around you as human beings with feelings, pain, ambitions, wishes, weaknesses, and desires to be valued, appreciated, and accepted, you’ll fall short of leadership greatness.

11.  Hired, developed, and deployed winners.  They are a good judge of outstanding talent. They also understand the need to groom people, paying particular attention to developing their interpersonal competence and leadership skills. They provide growth opportunities for their emerging leaders through coaching and mentoring. Finally, they ensure that their human resources are deployed smartly throughout their organization.

12.  Asked, listened, and acted.  According to an Italian proverb, “The pope and peasant know more between them than the pope alone.” Great leaders regularly ask for help in the form of ideas from their people. They listen to those ideas, acknowledge them, and adopt them whenever possible. Their ego never gets in the way.


Enough Said:  “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.”  ~Henry Kissinger


Congratulations on your top three!  Many people aren’t led by anyone with these three particular qualities. Think of ways you can leverage them even further for the good of your people.


Congratulations on your bottom three!  You have taken the first step toward a leadership greatness plan. What you need to do in the next step of that development may be crystal clear. But if you need help in gaining clarity, give me a call. Not being as close to your forest as you are, I may be able to help you spot a few trees.


Executive Leadership Academy:  The ELA is an in-house program tailored to the needs of each organization. Its mission is to equip emerging leaders with the 12 qualities described above and several others. See the full description.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cathy D at work 02.24.10 at 11:35 am

Hi Sam,

Good stuff. Printed and will use on the job. I am giving you my work email so you can send them to work. I do get them at home.


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