What is Leadership?


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I was asked recently for my thoughts on leadership, what is it?  How do you recognize it?

I certainly know when I meet someone with poor leadership qualities, but it is much more difficult to identify the crucial aspects of a good leader.

Knowledge is certainly a prerequisite for a good leader. A leader doesn’t have to know everything – in fact, most good leaders draw upon the strength of the team’s cumulative knowledge rather than having the answer for everything. But I had a manager once with the propensity to keep talking, despite not knowing the subject matter. She would talk about the company’s products, continuing even when it was obvious she was on shaky ground, embarrassing herself and the company in the process.

At the same time, I have had other managers who understood little of what I was doing, but were wise enough to admit that. They would ask relevant questions, or allow me to present information when they knew they could not do the subject justice. Most good leaders know when to trust in their team, in their colleagues, especially when their own knowledge is less than complete.

But the same could be said of any professional, whether in a leadership position or not. A key leadership quality is the confidence that comes with knowledge and experience. Many decisions in the corporate atmosphere are made by committee, but countless others must be made which pass below notice. A true professional builds up a sense of judgment, and in the majority of cases there is no absolute right or wrong. Or, if there are, there is often no way to confirm which was the correct response until much, much later. A proper leader needs to know when a decision must be made, and must have the confidence to stand behind that decision, to push ahead despite the risks. At the same time, the leader must also know when not to jump into action, to be able to decide that more research is needed, or to have the bravery to maintain one’s course in the face of danger.

I once had a manager who, at the company softball games, would proudly tell me that it was “more important to be loud than right” when calling people out at the bases. I thought that quite ironic at the time – I was new to the “real world”, and my boss was basically telling me that despite how confident he seemed to be, he still might not be making the right decision in the end. Being right out of the military, I could only compare this attitude with those of my drill sergeants – had they been confident but wrong, people would die.

There are so many intangible qualities which make a good leader, and a lot depends on how one is going to measure that leader for quality. Are you looking at quantity of output? Employee loyalty? Customer attrition? By straight definition, one would say that a good leader motivates people to follow them. Whether this means that workers on a factory line continue to stand at their posts for hours at a time, or graphic designers provide exactly the feel the marketing manager needs for the campaign, those being led must understand where they are going, and have a desire to go there.

There are so many ways this can be accomplished, and the best leaders seem to follow their instincts. Some are strict, others are more approachable, but good leaders find a way to motivate their employees that fits their own style.

I, personally, think the best way to do this is to lead by example. To know what direction the team needs to go, and to perform the actions which will be necessary to get the team there. The better leaders seem to share, rather than hoard, knowledge. The best leaders show their passion, their desire to succeed, to their employees, making that passion contagious. The best leaders set an example to follow – rather than ordering around their employees, these people do what needs to be done in a professional, ethical manner, encouraging everyone around them to do the same.

The best leaders know what motivates their individual employees – whether money, or title, or simple praise. The best leaders give employees what they need, and let them earn what they want. The best leaders form a real team, almost a family with a common goal, achieved through loyalty and dedication.

Building a team itself is an important quality in a good leader, but as oftentimes leaders are given resources instead of building teams from scratch, it is more important to maximize those diverse resources. Not every employee is perfect, nor is any one useless. A great leader recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of their resources, and deploys them in the most effective way. A great leader continues to monitor what he or she has already done, always looking to maximize the team’s success.

Leadership is vital in an organization, and it is not limited to executives and managers. Everyone who enters their workplace with pride and strives to complete an honest day’s work can be a leader. If the loyal, dedicated secretary inspires the attorney to stay a little later and find that one key precedent, then win or lose, that secretary is showing true leadership. If a buck private straightens himself up, takes a deep breath, and charges the hill ahead of his battle buddies, the first one to jump on the sergeant’s call despite machine gun fire all around, he has shown true leadership. If the computer technician informs her colleagues about a new virus and helps them install updated software in advance of an attack, she has proven herself to be a leader.

Not everyone is perfect: worker production has ebbs and flows, ups and downs. A good leader manages this, aware of deadlines and company schedules, all while balanced against the needs of the team to care for their families and themselves. A great leader seems to plan for these contingencies, or to be able to react quickly with just the right decision.

But in the end, if the leader has truly done their job right, then just about any decision they make could, and will, be the right one.

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