People often ask me to describe a leader. My pithy answer is to suggest that you will recognize a leader when you see one in action.

Some confuse leadership with management. Of course a manager can be a leader and a leader a manager. The distinction is that a manager’s focus is to keep things running, whereas the leader moves things in a new, different direction. The manager keeps the earth spinning on its axis; the leader moves it forward in space.

Often people limit the concept of leadership to the person at the head of a hierarchy. The titular head of any hierarchy in effect holds the reins of leadership, but anyone, anywhere in a hierarchy can exercise leadership, no matter where they position on the totem pole.

Think of flat organizational structures  where each worker pulls the oars of a vessel in co-shared leadership. Sure there is a boss, a titular leader, but the effective leaders in this organization are emergent. Anyone can exercise leadership who looks around, notices that something can be done better, convinces others that that idea makes sense, and galvanizes action, whatever their position. Round the edges in this hierarchy so that its triangular form becomes circular, and each member supports the team like spokes on a wheel. This is very much the organization structure of a learning team in an MBA program. Envisioned this way, the interrelationship of leadership and teamwork is apparent.

In defining the qualities of a leader, I begin with self-awareness. Leaders understand their strengths and are cognizant of their vulnerabilities. They can discern the strengths in others and have the prescience to know that sometimes success occurs despite their actions, not because of them.

Leaders have vision. They know where they want to take an organization, their brains are fertile with ideas, they have seemingly boundless energy, and they are passionate about their beliefs. If they do not believe what they espouse, who else will believe them?

I have never known a leader whose communication was not concise, who could not message, who did not inspire. They might be extroverted or introverted, but in all cases could articulate their vision with the concision (and precision) of a laser beam. As such they are adroit negotiators.

Leaders are good at teamwork, at attracting supporters who embrace their vision, at building a so-called coalition of the willing. And just as they are passionate, they are compassionate and empathic, sensitive to the needs of others and appreciative of the support they receive. They generally set high standards for others and are toughest on themselves. They display mind and heart.

Last but not least, the leader has integrity. The organization may have a written code of ethics that fills a library, but it is the leaders who set the ethical tone with their actions. History is replete with ruined organizations whose leaders did not act ethically. Enron is a prime example.

All the best,

Warren J. Devalier
Interface Inc.

©2014 Interface