What Makes a Gr8 Leader?

Today marks the start of a new blog series entitled What Makes a Gr8 Leader. Join us on this journey every week as guest bloggers share their thoughts on what they believe makes a Gr8 leader. Today’s guest blogger is Chris Mann. 

When I think of leadership I think of many different things.  Sometimes what comes to mind is a person, like George Washington or Mahatma Gandhi.  Sometimes it’s a character trait, such as courage or perseverance.  Sometimes I think of things that leaders need, like vision and passion.

But lately I’ve been thinking about something else.  What must one DO to be a leader?  After all, great leaders have done so many different things.  There are social leaders, military leaders, national leaders, community leaders, etc.  Is there a common action that all leaders take?  And further, is there a FIRST action that all leaders take?

And I found an answer.  Like most leadership rules and ideas, it’s nothing new.  In fact, it’s thousands of years old, and comes to us from Ancient Greece.  And like most leadership rules and ideas, it’s ultimately very simple.  Just two words:

“Know thyself.”

That’s it.  If you want to be a leader, that’s your first step.  Know thyself.

Easier said than done.  But really knowing yourself typically requires some pretty brutal honesty. No one enjoys admitting weakness, ineptitude, or fault.  Or maybe it’s that we have some priorities out of order.  Sometimes we even hesitate to admit our strengths.

All of us practice some degree of self-deception.  The reason is usually that admission requires action, and often very difficult action.  Edward Benson said, “How desperately difficult it is to be honest with oneself. It is much easier to be honest with other people.”

But while some can get by with a bit of self-deception, a leader cannot.  Without self-knowledge a leader is crippled.  At any stage, the quality of leadership will always be directly determined by the degree of self-knowledge that the leader possesses.

There are many ways that self-knowledge impacts leadership, but I’m just going to focus on two areas: a leader’s vision or goals, and overcoming personal limitations.

The first impact of self-knowledge is pretty easy to see.  Leaders all have a vision, or some sort of goal.  You can’t lead if you’ve got nowhere to go.

But without self-knowledge a vision or goal doesn’t amount to anything.  How many people set New Year’s resolutions?  How many keep them?  The reason more people don’t follow or attain their resolutions is because they don’t want to.  At some point along the path to achieving their goal or resolution, they decide it’s not worth it.

I can think of plenty of times in my life when I thought how great it would be to tackle a project or make a change to my daily schedule.  I happily decide to do it, only to discover that I don’t really want to because it means I have to do or stop doing x, y, or z.  I failed to recognize what was really important to me.  I didn’t know myself well enough to recognize that I was heading down a dead end path.

How many companies have a vision statement on the wall that doesn’t really mean much?  At some point it wasn’t worth it for the ownership or management, who are the leaders, to keep after that vision.  I know I’ve worked there, and I know I’m not alone.

I’m not saying don’t push yourself.  I’m not saying that you can never re-adjust your priorities.  I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t go for a goal just because it may be beyond you.  Oftentimes the striving itself is what’s valuable.  But again, you must know yourself well enough to know if that’s the case.

All the more so for a leader.  People won’t buy into a vision that the leader doesn’t even believe in.  Let’s take a quick look at some positive examples.

Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Steve Jobs knew themselves very well.  Though leaders in very different areas of life, both knew what mattered most to them. And because they knew themselves so well, they were able to focus their energy towards a goal with an intensity that is rarely seen.

And again, because of self-knowledge, they both pressed on without hesitation in the face of adversity.  They both knew that the goal they pursued was worth their all, even if they didn’t succeed.  Which is probably a big part of why they did.

Before casting the vision or setting the goal, a leader must know whether they really truly believe in it.  Because if the leader doesn’t, no one else will either.  You may get a few miles in, but you won’t finish the race.

The second area I want to address is how leaders overcome limitations.

We’ve all met people who live under the impression that they excel at everything they do.  Or have one area they struggle but don’t seem to recognize it.  People can be oblivious to the obvious.

An example of this can be seen every time auditions come up for a talent show on TV.  Be it singing, dancing, or something else entirely, there are always a few candidates who feel like they belong on stage who, quite frankly, don’t.

Sometimes, as in the case of shower rock-stars, this type of self-ignorance is harmless.  But a leader cannot afford that ignorance.  It can be the Achilles’ heel that leads to failure.

The essential problem is that if one is unaware of their shortcomings, then no effort will be made to improve.  No one is perfect, and leaders are no exception.  The degree to which a leader understands their own imperfections is the degree to which the leader can address them.

The greatest leaders recognize their shortcomings.  But they stay within their strength.  They make sure that their time and effort are spent doing what they are great at.  To address the issue of their weaknesses, they bring people on board who are strong in those areas.  Opposite strengths balance them out.  The more the leader understands him or her self, the better equipped he or she is to select the right people to work with.

This approach provides stronger and more effective leadership.  For example, we’ve all had a teacher we know is brilliant, but can’t explain something to save their lives.  How much more effective would that teacher be if he or she had someone to help them craft their ideas into a more accessible format?

It’s the same with leadership.  There are leaders who have brilliant ideas and vision but struggle to put them into a step-by-step practical plan.  Or that have great communication skills but struggle to create the content itself.

The leaders who recognize and acknowledge where they are weak and bring the right people on board to help will always be more successful.

Jeff Hoffman, co-founder of Priceline.com, stated, “I have only been able to accomplish that (a well run organization) when I had a true partner by my side, my co-pilot in the cockpit, my EA. A talented EA is one of the most important decisions an executive will make.”

Now, there are leaders out there who are so skilled in a specific area, and have enough talent, that they can “make up” for their deficiencies to varying degrees.  But the ceiling is always higher for the leader who has taken the time to “know thyself” and finds the right supporting cast.

These are just two examples out of many that show how self-knowledge is foundational for effective leadership.  While there are many things that make up a leader, the best place to start is back those many thousands of years.

“Know thyself.”

If you aspire to lead, or if you already do, spend some time asking yourself reflective questions.

  • “What matters most to me?”
  • “Why is this so important to me?”
  • “What do I want to do?”
  • “What am I willing to give up to make my vision a reality?”
  • “What are my strengths?”
  • “Who do I need to help me?”

Good honest answers to these few questions will go a long way in putting you or keeping you on the right track. It will help you become a GREAT LEADER.

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