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What Makes A Person A Great Leader?

leadership management community thought leader qualities of a leader

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#1 cre8pc


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Posted 04 October 2014 - 01:07 PM

I became suddenly very curious about leadership when I wrote about it somewhere and my thoughts on the topic were ignored.  Maybe I was posing questions about the need for leadership in an area where it can not be done,  Ever since then, I have had quiet conversations with various CEO's I know who have noticed what I am seeing - it is very rare to find a great leader anymore.
So part of my curiosity is about leadership itself - like what the hell is it?  
I know what I find off-putting from people who refer to themselves as leaders when I know for a fact they are liars, cheats, dysfunctional, and hiding secrets that would, if made public, dump them from their throne.  They rule by fear.  There is a price to pay for standing up to them.
Being in the SEO and UX industries for going on 20 years now, I now have the advantage of seeing the rise and fall of companies and people.  I can think of many people who once stood out from the crowd and are today either gone or reduced to a quiet life doing something different.  Once admired and sought after, their light is out.  Some were CEO's of famous companies that no longer exist.  Does this mean that leaders are masters are deception?
Looking outside my working world, I find leaders who have stood the test of time, like Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Ben Franklin, our American Founding Fathers, and Native American Chiefs like Black Elk and Crazy Horse.
It's sad that women don't come up as quickly.  And yet with the Cherokee, women were the leaders and decision makers for the tribes and it was not the last name of men that were taken upon marriage, but the names of the women.  Hillary Clinton has a huge hurdle to jump to be elected President because she is a woman, despite the fact that other countries embrace women leaders.  What are we afraid of, I wonder?
Are The Qualities Different for Religion/Politics/Companies/Organizations/Families?

Some leadership roles are achieved by vote and the criteria varies.  For example, electing the next Catholic Pope is not the same as electing the President or Prime Minister of a country and these are different than choosing company CEO's (who may get the job because they started the company), or community leaders, who get things done at a local level.  


There are leaders who are cruel.  They kill their own people. There are leaders who fire employees and replace them with cheaper replacements.  In other words, leaders get to keep their roles even when their actions are unethical, cruel and inhumane.


How would you define a leader? What specific leadership qualities do you admire? Are there less great examples of true leaders in today's world, or more? 


At PubCon next week, SEMPO has put together a last minute meeting of the minds to discuss managing the ethics of the SEO industry and attempting to get standards in place.  It got off to a bad start because it was just announced, rather than being planned so that interested people could plan their travel and schedules to include it.  It's also a topic nobody likes and which has debated for years and years.  Jill Whalen used to champion the idea and was blasted for it every time she brought it up.  


It seems as though some people consider themselves to be a leader and yet I see no signs of leadership from them.  For starters, a leader does not hurt people for their own gain.  To me, a true leader has a plan and considers every angle, seeks council and uses it, and makes choices that benefit the whole rather than one or two.  There is no place for ego, vanity and greed.  A leader motivates, inspires and encourages knowledge and the sharing of this knowledge.  A leader is never drunk, high, unbalanced, threatening, controlling, one sided and selfish.  To me, a leader builds, rather than breaks apart.  


Am I crazy or does it seem like there are few actual leaders in today's world?



#2 DonnaFontenot


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Posted 05 October 2014 - 12:14 PM

I think your definition of a leader is narrow. You are placing adjectives in front of the word "leader", such as good leader, effective leader, ethical leader, kind leader, moral leader, giving leader, etc. You may not have used those exact phrases, but your descriptions of a leader imply it.


A leader is simply someone who leads or commands a group of people. There are no moral or ethical attachments to being a leader. So anyone who has a group of followers who hang on to that person's words, follow that person's instructions, emulate that person's actions...that person is a leader of that group of followers. That leader may be the Pied Piper leading children away from their families. That leader may be H i t l e r (this stupid software wouldn't let me type his name). That leader may be Ghandi. That leader may be the latest SEO guru. That leader may be the head of a street gang. That leader may be the authority figure of a family. I could go on and on.


So yes, anyone who has a following can call him or herself a leader. If you are looking to narrow down things, then you need to really specify that.


Are you looking to define an ethical business leader (a CEO who thinks first of his employees and clients over self-profit?)

Are you looking to define a benevolent dictator for life, such as Linus Torvalds? 

Are you hoping to define a leader who can get things done, keep a company from falling to pieces, and help its employees retain their jobs, but the price for doing so might be to make a few handshakes that are a little on the gray side of ethical?

Are you seeking to define a political leader who may have to make some concessions in order to achieve peace?


What I'm saying is that there are many types of leaders, and many ways to define a leader. Even the worst leaders in someone's opinion can still be called a leader, if he or she led a group of people through a set of actions or thoughts or beliefs. But most of the time, a leader will never be completely white-hat, completely ethical, completely moral, or be able to live up to the highest of standards. Leadership almost always requires some form of concessions "for the greater good". Deals must be made. Negotiations must be made. One leader must give a little to get a little. Keeping employees happy with big salaries may cut into the profits so much that the business fails and the employees no longer have jobs. So salaries may need to be lower than what would be satisfactory for the short term, to prevent long-term failure. A politician may have to agree to give assistance to a country, despite the fact that the leader of the country is evil. But in return, the politician gets the evil leader to agree to stop torturing innocent citizens of that country.


Good, effective leaders are often required to make decisions that live in the grayer areas of ethics. Those leaders who are 100% ethical, moral, kind, and good - and are also effective - are rare, and probably never existed. Even ghandi probably made a few less-than-perfectly-ethical decisions but we may never know about those. For sure, Ben Franklin would have, and Nelson Mandela did. Leaders are human. There are good ones and bad ones and ones of every kind between those extremes. Being effective doesn't require goodness, it just requires getting the job done in a timely manner, with the least cost. That effectiveness may involve ethics and morals - or may not.


Of course, your definition of a leader is a nice ideal. Great ideal, in fact. Just not very realistic is all. That kind of leader might be able to thrive in small groups, in a small way. But add more people to the mix...more clients, more employees, more population, more countries, more religions, more belief systems, more anything...and that ideal will quickly have to make concessions.


Or so it seems to me. 

Edited by DonnaFontenot, 05 October 2014 - 12:15 PM.




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Posted 05 October 2014 - 01:14 PM

Donna.... I think that you need to write an article about this.   No kidding.

#4 glyn


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Posted 05 October 2014 - 01:17 PM

A leader takes decisions with whatever he/she is leading, how they go about it is what makes them stand the test of time.

#5 cre8pc


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Posted 05 October 2014 - 04:24 PM

I think your definition of a leader is narrow.


I did that on purpose because my fear was that some people might see this is an opportunity to complain about politicians and from there, get into some of the incidents and conflicts happening globally.


One of the things that stood out to me in my readings is a reference to great leaders having a vision  beforehand.  That stuck out to me, because I can see potential leaders but they lack the vision part.  They don't have a plan or something to aspire to.  


With President Obama, he clearly has a vision and a mission.  He has a hard selling them.  We get bits and pieces of his plans and these broad decisions that I see are tied to his overall vision but unless one is privy to the entire plan, these bits can seem like weak spokes on the larger wheel.  I also don't feel as though his mission is accepted by all people.  He is a man who wants peace for his country.  When someone wants that, they are viewed as weak.  


The Dalai Lama has a vision and we accept this, calling him an Avatar, or spiritual teacher.  And yet this man was removed from his country.  It makes him no less a leader to me.  It does tell me that a leader will not always have rights or power or the ability to change customs or laws.


It is a shame that the term "leader" comes later for some our most standout examples.  Does this mean that time is a criteria for leadership too?


Donna's excellent questions help me to see that a leader, or the criteria for what makes one, depends on what is being led.  An industry leader is different than a religious leader.  There must be some redundant qualities between all but I can see that my expectations may need refinement.

#6 Grumpus


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Posted 06 October 2014 - 05:43 AM

My thoughts on this are similar to Donna's - though not exactly the same. Your "trigger" here was an article dealt with "16 Experts." The flaw there is that just because you are an expert, it doesn't make you a leader. Picasso was an expert, but he wasn't a "leader". Sure, people look up to him, and he inspires them, but a leader? Not in the way you are looking for.


Now we get into things that Donna is talking about.


--You have leaders who decide to be a leader - this would include ever politician in the U.S. (and many other countries). They say, "I want to be a leader" and they go out seeing followers (aka voters).


--Then you have leaders who become that way naturally and as a result of something else. Mahatma Gandhi didn't set out to be a leader - he just had some ideas, told them to people and they made sense. He attained the status of being a leader by virtue of the fact that people simply decided to follow. Though it might be argued that Nelson Mandala is a "decided to be a leader" class, I think he at least started down here in the "natural" leader class. He didn't set out to get followers - he set out to affect change and as the followers came, he realized the power and then began to seek organization. Many "natural" leaders end up in the "decided to be" category in the end, but not until after they have already gained some following in the first place.


-- Next, we have the lineage leaders - kings and the like who get put into a place just because they happened to be born into it. Some are good, some aren't. (Hint: Some people are good leaders, some aren't - I'd imagine that the ratio of good and bad hereditary leaders is roughly the same as any random sampling of people).



On your list of leaders from the original post, the most interesting to me is your choice of Ben Franklin. He owned companies, so I suppose in that sense, he was a corporate leader. But in the context of the things he has "stood the test of time" for, he wasn't really a leader at all. His involvement in the revolution came from his desire to be able to make money. He stood against the Stamp Act at first, but he was still loyal to England at the time - he just wanted to retain profits. It wasn't until he learned that Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson was "talking" like he was standing for the rights of the colonists, but was "acting" on behalf on England that Franklin flipped sides and became involved. Even so, his motivation for everything was almost purely profit driven, and he never really had "followers" - he was really just an "expert" who was called upon.


Along Donna's lines of thinking, too - there are degrees of "leaders." Parents are "leaders" of their family. Some parents, despite what the news tries to tell us, are pretty damned good at it, too. It's a much smaller scope that we're talking about here, though.


We're talking about leaders of an industry or sector of industry. Do other industries have leaders? Who are the "leaders" of the auto industry? Each company has a CEO, but is there one person (or even a small group of leaders from the industry) who speak for it and the others within the industry will follow? Not really. Sure, they send out people to Washington to look out for their interests - but those people aren't really leaders. If you owned an SEO company and sent me to Washington (or sent me to Google, for that matter) to make sure our company's interests were being considered, it wouldn't make me a leader in the industry. You'd still be my leader and I'm just a representative looking out for YOUR interests.

I don't think the SEO Industry has any leaders - not in the sense of being in charge of it as a whole, anyway. There are some Ben Franklins out there whose opinions and ideas we might respect more than others, but they aren't leaders - they are experts. In respects to your article about the 16 experts in the industry being all male - to me, that says more about the group who put the article together than it says about the experts or potential list of experts. The leaders (if they exist in the first place) probably have better things to do than talk to the people who put this article together. Imagine that tonight you have a choice of going on your local news station or attend a meeting that is going to put together a set of provisions that might have lasting impact on your industry. You're going to choose to do the latter.




I guess I'll leave with this thought on leaders. One of the sad truths about leadership is that anyone who actually seeks out a leadership role and then actively focuses on staying a leader is not someone I really want to follow. They are spending a good part of their time becoming and/or keeping their role. The best leaders are the "natural" ones - where the followers are just there because they believe in you. They don't have to worry about maintaining their position - they can focus their time on leading.


If you're looking for a leader in the industry, find someone you respect and admire and follow them. Get others to follow them, and before you know it, they'll be a leader.


If you're looking to BE a leader in the industry, then lead. If your ideas are sound and people can get behind them, they will. It won't happen overnight, of course, but if it's worthwhile, they can't help but follow.



#7 mrgoodfox


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Posted 06 October 2014 - 11:26 AM

I was just watching this TED video over the weekend. Perfect thread to follow afterwards  :)





Edited by mrgoodfox, 06 October 2014 - 11:28 AM.

#8 send2paul


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Posted 08 October 2014 - 02:26 PM

Interesting. All good stuff as well.


When I first read the title to your post Kim, the first thought that jumped into my head was - "A leader should be a good manager"... then I thought - "No, people will say that a manager is not a leader" - which is true.... so I'll stick to my original thought - "A leader should be a good manager".... as well as being other things as well :)

#9 anynewsbd


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Posted Yesterday, 07:18 AM

Work, life style, jobs like social work, discover some thing like great madicine/ some thing for mankind & the most important is that take leadership from front when need, when the moment is consusted.

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