“The ability to charm dogs off a meat truck”… “When people want to follow you even if just out of curiosity” … “The ability to make the other guys feel in charge”. To “empower”, to “motivate”, to “inspire”… The list of attributes to what makes a great leader is countless. They all make a good read, but none of them fully capture the true essence of what makes a great Leader in a complete way, I believe
Great leaders may posses a myriad of attributes, no least of which are smarts, intelligence, charisma and natural charm. All of these things matter. However you can be a great leader and not be naturally charming or very intelligent, or many of the other attributes named.
The below are in my view the three must-have attributes to be a great leader, and in this priority, (although reverse order of difficulty).
The ability to amass a great team, motivate and inspire them is plain useless if you don’t have a clear vision of where you need to get to. Leadership is first about seeing the future and being able to figure out a feasible path to getting there. It’s seeing the iceberg before the Titanic hits it and taking fast and decisive action. It’s seeing beyond the forest when all everyone around sees, is the forest. Its doing the one right thing versus doing many things right. It’s being different, not following the herd, being controversial, seeing what others don’t see. It’s having a nose for what’s coming, and the eyes and ears to react at the right time, before others do. Without vision, you can empower people all you like but you won’t get anywhere. You may have people drooling at your feet for attention – you are still not a leader. You have a following but no direction. You may make a great motivational coach bit not a leader. The thesis that you can collectively find the direction is nonsense. That may work in maintaining the status quo when things are going well. But every really hard situation (and no leadership of any kind is ever devoid of them) needs a visionary leader to point the way and take a tough decision.
Once you have a clear vision (but only then), next you need a sting followership because you are unlikely to fulfill it alone. That requires the power of influence. Whether you are a hired gun put in an existing situation to lead it, or the creator of one, this is very hard thing to do. Exceedingly hard. First because you are a newbie in either scenario. People are used to measuring the odds, that’s how they size things up, and the odds are against you. Why should people trust a newbie? Secondly, the vast majority of people are resistant to change, no matter the odds. Doing what you are used to is far easier, always. Yet to fulfill any grand vision you need to drive change, by definition, otherwise you are just a puppet master holding the strings waiting for the show to end. In that process you need to influence people across the board: employees leave secure jobs and come join you; investors to give you money when you haven’t proven anything, customers and fans to support you, your bank manager to give you an overdraft, your landlord to give you a lease and rent-free period; your wife to put up with sleepless nights, cold sweats and no pay; your mum to let you camp in the basement when your wife finally kicks you out. What makes this even worse is you carry that burden of influence with you. Every day that passes you get a little heavier knowing that if you go down you take more people with you than yesterday.
Hence the third element and the hardest. You’ve clarified a vision and built a followership by begging, charming, coercing, schmoozing….ultimately influencing enough people. After all this work you realize its just day1. Because all of these are like the boat (more like a raft) and the compass. You now need to cross the ocean. This is the final and true test of great leadership. And it ultimately comes down to courage. Intelligence and knowledge are advantages of course, but without courage they are wasted. Whilst courage without them will get you there, albeit slower and with more pain. So the key question is: do you have the courage to keep going when everyone tells you to turn back; to know you’re right when everyone says you’re wrong; to stick to your instincts when people call you crazy knowing that if you fail you will be called a stubborn loser (and if you succeed a genius); to carry other people’s weight when they fall, to set the tempo and beat the drum however tired you may be, to keep people together when they are drifting apart and losing faith; to give them courage but not fake hope; to tell it how it is even if they don’t want to hear it; to say NO when they are desperate for a YES; to cut the rope when the load gets too heavy and may sink the boat; to let go of some to save the many; to weather the storm but not bask in the sunlight when it ends, because by now you should know: it never ends.
Vision and Influence make you a well equipped Captain. But courage gets you there. On the other hand courage alone is being a fighter without a cause. A hero but not a leader. You may be good at creating lots of noise, but, to paraphrase Sun Tzu’s Art of War: it’s just “the noise before defeat”