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 Ask.com:
“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 Ask.com 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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