What is a leader?
What is great leadership?

A leader is someone who creates willing followers. The best leaders are positive and enthusiastic, recognize the contributions of their team, create a feeling of success or mutual achievement, engender a sense of purpose into the work of the team, have a clear and inspiring vision, and always behave with integrity.

What is a Leader? What Does Leadership Mean?

I’m often asked, implicitly or explicitly, questions about leadership.  Questions such as: What is a leader? How do I lead? What does leadership mean? What is the difference between leadership and management?

I have, over the years, developed quite a clear view of my own thoughts. And interestingly I recently met a wise and experienced gent, Bernard Cook, who it seems is even more passionate than I am that there is very clear distinction between Leadership and Management. And the discussion I had with Bernard led me to write this article on what I feel makes a good leader.

I have in my time heard many different definitions of leadership. Some lengthy, some short, some clear and some waffle. And whilst each has merits, after many years of listening, I personally favour one simple definition that I think is absolutely clear and is a great starting point for further thoughts. It answers the question of what is a leader very simply as:

A leader is someone who creates willing followers!

Clearly followers are people who will follow the leader, do as they ask, take guidance from them and generally choose to obey their instructions.

What does leadership mean?

So what does it take to create willing followers? Do people willingly follow the stereotypical ‘leader’? The ‘leader’ that barks orders, shouts and bullies? Not usually.That sort of leadership might succeed in the short term, and can be effective in a crisis. But is it likely to be successful in a lean modern business, which needs a group of people to work together in a co-operative way over a sustained period? Only if there is tight supervision and control. Which of course costs money and makes the business less efficient. And actually it is worse than that. What is the performance of people working enthusiastically at something they choose to do, compared to the performance of people reluctantly doing something they feel they have to do?So understanding how to be an effective leader, means understanding how to create followers; understanding what drives behaviour when people have a choice.Why would you do something for someone else? Why would (do) you follow a leader?You might do it for tangible reward – being paid, but you might also do it for an emotional reward, like praise or thanks or achievement or fulfilment. And there is a lot of evidence that suggests that beyond a level of meeting basic needs, emotional rewards are more effective.

The best leaders

So in my view the best leaders are those that
  • are positive and enthusiastic
  • recognise the contributions of their team
  • create a feeling of success or mutual achievement
  • engender a sense of purpose, into the work of the team.
and in particular
  • have a clear and inspiring vision
  • always behave with integrity
  • recruit, retain and most importantly develop other great people
In my ten years as a Managing Director and Chief Executive of Medium sized businesses and longer period as a SME Managing Director and General Manager I’ve tried to behave in this way.The most successful corporate CEOs are good leaders tooI was pleased recently to come across a Whitehead Mann paper that says much the same, even if their research is inevitably based around the corporate CEO.They list ten ‘X Factors’ competencies that their research suggests are needed to go ‘from Good to Great’ and I’ve summarised them below for your benefit:

A great business leader …

  • has a vision of where the company is going, not just of the next year’s financials
  • delivers financial performance, appreciating this is always necessary – but alone is not sufficient
  • recruits, retains and motivates other talented people
  • is smart
  • has an eye for detail without losing sight of the bigger picture
  • has a realistic view concerning time-frames
  • has integrity
  • is not afraid to stamp their own style on an organisation
  • has energy and resilience
  • understands that there is no single model
If you want the detail of this research you can find the original Whitehead Mann paper here.