Becoming a Great Leader

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It’s not a faith in technology. It’s faith in people.
Steve Jobs

Some lucky people are born with the right traits and personalities to be natural leaders. Their very behaviour and actions inspire others. But they’re few and far between. The rest of us need to learn how to lead teams successfully and have to practise those skills over time.  Even the late Steve Jobs wasn’t a natural leader. In his early years, he was awkward and uncomfortable in front of cameras and presenting to large numbers of people – yet he became known for his enthralling presentations as the CEO and face of Apple.

Being a great leader is possible and it’s never too early, or too late, to start developing the leader within you.

Great leaders vs poor leaders

Organizations depend on great leaders to not only inspire employees, but customers, shareholders, suppliers and other stakeholders as well. They’re easy to spot because they’re rare – mediocre managers are much more the norm unfortunately. So what makes a great leader? These are people who do more than just assign tasks to a team, they inspire everyone to strive for excellence and reach their full potential. They seem to have just the right blend of knowledge, intelligence, confidence, interpersonal skills, humility, drive, respect for others and, most importantly, integrity.  Penny de Valk, chief executive of the Institute for Leadership and Management in the U.K., believes that people measure leaders on their integrity. “You can be as competent as you like, but, if people don’t trust you, you’re not a leader.”

Great managers lead by example, modelling the behaviour, attitudes and values they expect to see in others and creating a positive work environment where everyone’s opinion and ideas are appreciated and welcomed. They’re also able to focus on the big picture and not on their own importance.

Becoming a leader

If you’re not one of those rare individuals with leadership abilities built into your DNA, here are a few tips to get you started on your path to becoming a great leader:

  1. Focus on your strengths.  Recognize what you’re good at and work within your limitations.  Effective, inspirational leaders always seems to be doing everything naturally and effortlessly because they’re playing to their strengths. They’ve also recognized their weaknesses and have learned the necessary skills to fill in any gaps – or hired people to do those functions.
  2. Be open to debate and discussion. Know that there are probably members of your team who may be smarter and/or more knowledgeable than you and listen to them.  Many managers fail because they believe they’re superior to other team members and therefore make decisions unilaterally.Great leaders are great listeners. Really listen when your team members speak to you about their work-related worries.
  3. Take risks and don’t be afraid to fail. When you fail, it’s how you respond that counts. This is where your deeper qualities come out. Inspirational business leaders like Bill Gates or Sir Richard Branson are not infallible. They make mistakes. The difference is they display accountability and are seen to quickly and effectively correct those mistakes.
  4. Focus on decision-making. About 80 percent of leadership is about decision-making.  Often leaders underperform because they avoid making decisions for fear of the consequences. It’s estimated that for the average leader only five percent of their input is made up of questions; with good leaders this rises to around 60 to 70 percent.
  5. Lead by example. Your team must believe in your integrity, and that you really mean what you say. Be prepared to put your money where your mouth is. If a manager gives and takes feedback well, everyone else will too. If the leader is defensive, passive-aggressive, plays favourites, or does other things that work against the best idea winning or good employees advancing, everyone else will play those destructive games. Only a boss who sees their own behaviour as a model the rest of the organization will tend to follow can ever become a truly great leader.
  6. Share leadership. Distribute tasks among group members depending on the situation and individual strengths. You become a better leader by involving more people in the leadership process and being seen as a mentor for future leaders.
  7. Learn to manage distance. While being in touch with employees is a positive thing, a degree of distance is vital. You have to be able to step back and look at the big picture. You can’t do that if you’re constantly down in the trenches.
  8. Adapt your style to context. The best leaders are good at adapting their style to the organizations or situations they are in. Look at some of the most inspiring business leaders – their style is in sync with their companies styles and vice versa.
  9. Take a strategic approach.  An MBA is a good technical platform for disciplines such as accounting and marketing, but it doesn’t teach leadership. Instead, look to mentors and career coaches to develop your leadership style.Be strategic about what positions or projects you accept – only take on those at which you know you’ll succeed and excel. People tend to look for new challenges, but if you suddenly have to do a lot of things you’ve never done before your chance of success is almost zero.
  10. Create a positive work environment. A great manager cares deeply about his or her team and goes out of his or her way to protect, train, care for and reward members of that team. An integral part of this is creating and maintaining a great work environment in which it’s easy for smart people to do innovative things.And finally, many of the mistakes managers make involve reaping short-term successes at the expense of long-range goals and morale. Great leaders do the reverse, often sacrificing short-term gains to reach long-term goals. They have the vision to look to the future. Steve Jobs was fond of quoting hockey legend Wayne Gretsky who said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”Make this your mantra as well and you’ll be on your way to becoming a great leader.

Barbara Jaworski is Canada’s leading expert on boomers, chief KAA-Boomer of the Workplace Institute and author of Rebel Retirement – A KAA-Boomer’s Guide to Creating and Living an Explosive Second Act. You can find out more at

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