The Paradox of Great Leaders

Leadership Compass

Have you ever asked yourself what makes for a great leader?  Over the course of human history, how many times would you dare suppose others have asked the same question? At least a bazillion or two?  When I Goggled “what is a great leader,” there were 8,930,000 hits.  Well, if so many people seem to know what makes for great leader, why are they not more abundant?

One of the top search returns on this question was the answer provided by

“A great leader is one who has the following traits: achievable vision, passion, great decision maker, team builder, great character, good moral judgment and a sense of humor. For one to be a great leader, they must have a personality that can be admired by others.”

As a matter of fact, after reviewing the top 30 top search returns, my list of descriptors grew from a few to many.  It’s not a stretch to imagine that if I extended the research to several thousand search returns (with varied forms of the question), my list would be as long the one used by St. Nicholas at Christmas time.  In a twisted kind of way, the ultimate list would likely describe what it means to be a human being, not necessarily revealing the demographics of a great leader.

The whole thing reminds me of the caveat when putting 5 statisticians in a room to answer a single question – you’re sure to get back at least 14 opinions, usually prefaced with the catch phrase: “Well, it all depends.”

It seems that whenever you’re around a great leader, you can sense it.  You can’t quite put your finger on it, but somehow you just know it – you feel it.  They seem to have a certain aura about them.  From my perspective, the definition of a great leader (see above) describes an ordinary leader, not an extraordinary leader.  Simply using the word “great” versus “good” as a descriptive adjective doesn’t pull my chain, so to speak.  Frankly, the definition sounds cliché.

If the use of adjectives is what separates good leaders from the great one, we could easily identify some standard, well accepted top leadership traits and then put a 5 point scale to each trait – great, good, acceptable, poor and terrible.  Next, we could wrap all this stuff together in the form of a cool looking survey and then sample thousands of leaders.  Following this, we could hire some really prestigious professors (from several Ivy League schools) to perform the data analysis and then presto, we would then know what makes for a great leader – right?  Likely not.

Asking what makes for a great leader is much akin to inquiring why a leaf in a windstorm eventually comes to rest at a certain spot on the ground.  Even the power of today’s science can’t answer such questions.  If so, we would already have the answer and every organization would be full of great leaders.

Even the best of human observation and deep thinking can’t seem to get a solid handle on the issue.  But one thing is for sure – simply asking the same question over and over will likely not produce the right answer.  This is what leads me to believe we may be asking the wrong set of questions.

On the flip side of things, time has shown us that certain basic leadership skills can be taught, practiced and honed.  But when it comes to making great leaders, it’s a whole new ball game.  As many would likely agree, this caliber of leadership cannot be reduced to a set of behaviors, principles, axioms, or guidelines.  Simply stated, the human race seems to know how to create a reasonably good leader; and maybe even optimize them a little, but when it comes to knowing how to manufacture great leaders, we’re clueless.

You know, it’s unfortunate that the English language doesn’t have another word in the dictionary for such leaders – other than using the adjective “great.”  Saying that someone is a great leader makes it seem like their unique gift is just another notch up the scale – like moving from 4 to 5 Sigma.  Even great leaders don’t really know what makes them great, but one thing is for sure, they’re not cut from the same bolt of cloth.  For example, how many great leaders over time were able to sponsor a protégé that also turned out to be a great leader?

It would seem that most of the time, great leaders don’t start off being great.  Quite frequently, they spend much of their life just dwelling in background exercising ordinary leadership – good leadership, but nothing spectacular.  But for some, destiny calls – something almost magical happens.  Some set of circumstances come along that ultimately drives them into state of greatness and then leads them to a profound destiny.  Could it be that great leadership is circumstantial?  Is it possible that there are certain common circumstances or set of environmental conditions that drive greatness?


Let’s face it; the idea of what makes a great leader has been beat to death over the last half century, especially since the Internet has come onto the literary scene.  Every so-called leadership expert (often being academicians) has their magic list of the 5 Do’s, 4 Don’ts and 10 Keys to describe what a leader is, or what makes for a great leader.  Certainly, I’m not saying these morsels of knowledge are wrong; however, I am saying they’re more symptomatic than causal – often rooted in sensationalism.

Sometimes I often wonder when one of these deep thinkers (or maybe it’s really surface thinkers) is going to make a “Great Leadership Author Kit.”  You know what I’m talking about – a set of fill-in-the-blank, check-off-the-box set of website templates for composing a publish-ready leadership article, complete with fancy bullet dots and the capability to upload a strategic picture or two.

Such a template based software program could even have a drop down menu of standard phrases to select from, like “Every great leader knows that people are the key.”  And let’s not forget about the drop down menu for famous quotes, like Einstein’s definition of insanity:  “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So, let’s just ignore all the research suggesting that great leadership is devoid of any true predictor variables.  While there are some statistically loose correlations, it’s not the sort of thing you want to hang your hat on; however, it seems to be enough for some authors to create a book, like: “The 10 Habits of All Great Leaders.”  Here again, the previously mentioned author kit would be a great fit for creating such books.

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About Mikel Harry

Dr. Harry has been widely recognized in many of today's notable publications as the Co-Creator of Six Sigma and the world's leading authority within this field. His book entitled Six Sigma: The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations has been on the best seller list of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business Week, and He has been a consultant to many of the world’s top senior executives, such as Jack Welch, former CEO and Chairman of General Electric Corporation. Dr. Harry has also been a featured guest on popular television programs, such as the premier NBC show "Power Lunch." He is often quoted in newspapers like USA Today and interviewed by the media, such as The Economic Times. In addition, Dr. Harry has received many distinguished awards in recognition of his contributions to industry and society. At the present time, Dr. Harry is Chairman of the Six Sigma Management Institute and CEO of The Great Discovery, LLC.
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2 Responses to The Paradox of Great Leaders

  1. Hello,

    I agree that this is very cliché, in fact it’s part of the standard menu at any MBA, or degree program. “What is the difference between a leader and a manager” is the first question we are asked, the second being “What traits do successful leaders have?”. Most of us answer those questions for the sake of passing our exams and then forget about all those technicalities and get on with our lives… 🙂

    In my opinion it is quite probably most of the things all the authors and researchers have already highlighted, including the notion that it might very well be an inborn trait, or just being at the ‘right place at the right time’ (circumstantial) as you have pointed out. I also feel it is something that an individual must passionately want to become, be willing to put his or her career before everything else in life; i.e. be willing to sacrifice the proverbial ‘work -life balance’ if you may. Many individuals I know who could be considered great leaders in Sri Lanka seem to have achieved it at quite a cost to their personal lives and even their health. A great leader in the corporate world might not translate to being great in the home front. But then, maybe that’s just one of the outcomes of having a singular focus…?


    • Mikel Harry says:


      I must agree with you. The traits of a great leader likely stem from many different circumstances, like an innate inclination for leadership or rising to a challenge presented by a set of unique circumstances. I believe your point (like mine) is who really knows? Certainly, the research on this subject is all over the board. Even a couple of Meta-Studies failed to reveal the “vital few” reasons. Lots of theory, speculation, experience and research still have failed to definitively establish a set of hard cause-and-effect relationships. Owing to this, I often get a little perturbed when I see some of the short articles on LinkedIn that relate to the subject at hand. So many of these articles try to convince us there are 5 ways to great leadership or the 10 traits great leaders have in common. From my perspective, such articles are just literary noise, usually by prepared by authors trying to optimize their most recent social media campaign. I just wonder how many of these authors would be rated as great leaders, especially by their peers.

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