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I’ve been writing about leadership for over three years now, since publishing my book on character-centered leadership: Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters. Yet, I’ve not discussed in my blog how to define leadership. I suspect if you asked a dozen leaders to give a one-sentence definition of leadership, there’d be a dozen considerably different answers. I’d be curious to know if there would be common themes…as you read this blog, why not think about what leadership means to you? 

I’ll throw it out there—here’s my definition of leadership: “Leadership is motivating people who are different to unite around a shared purpose to get the job done.” In that definition are imbedded the three elements of my leadership philosophy:

  1. Believe in yourself and others; 
  2. Build trust and earn respect; and 
  3. Demonstrate moral courage. 

So, what attributes does a leader need to operationalize my definition of leadership? Or yours? Again, different leaders would have different thoughts on this, too. There’s no one right or wrong answer. That’s what makes studying leadership so fun and interesting! These are what I believe are the most important attributes of a leader: 

  1. Foremost, a leader must formulate, communicate, and implement a vision to “unite the team or organization around a shared purpose.” Formulating the vision may well be the easier part. A vision, no matter how compelling, will go nowhere without a carefully crafted communications plan followed by an accountable implementation strategy.
  2. Decision-making is key to “getting the job done.” Sadly, this can be the weak link in the chain for leaders. Throughout my career, leading and following at all levels, I’ve witnessed three impediments to decision-making:
  • Paralysis by Analysis: It’s insanely frustrating to work for a leader who can’t make a decision because they want “just one more piece of information.” Then when that information is provided, they want one more piece. Eventually, the staff’s morale sinks to the bottom and the office or unit climate degrades. People quit or leave. Leaders need to make the best decision they can with the information they have, within reason. Taking a cue from General George Patton, who said, a good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week,” I’ve always strived for the 80-85% solution.

  • The Consensus Conundrum: By the time a decision reaches a leader’s level, it’s tough, or it would have been made at a lower level. Tough, trade-off decisions are never easy. And seldom will there be consensus. Yet some leaders won’t act without the consent of the entire group. Although there may be times when 100% consent is needed, that’s seldom the case. Tough decisions require compromise and sacrifice, so there will almost always be those who disagree. An effective leader should communicate, collaborate, cooperate, compromise – all those powerful “C” words, but should never expect consensus.

  • The Being Nice Syndrome: In recent years, a “be nice” movement has manifested itself in the workplace. There are leaders who think being a good boss means being nice. They want to be liked. Therefore, they abdicate tough decisions that people might not like. I learned to take the approach of striving to be firm, fair, and respected, and to treat everyone with respect. To value and appreciate people. To help them feel included. Sure, I liked most of the people I worked with over the years, but I believe the liking came from mutual respect and understanding.
  1. Third, a leader must demonstrate a level of emotional intelligence to “motivate people who are different.” This means knowing how to be a follower before becoming a leader—learning about yourself so you can contribute your best to the team. It means knowing your people—what motivates them and inspires them—so you can become the leader they follow because they want to, not because they must. 

Look in the mirror: What is your definition of leadership? 

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character. 

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: