So What Makes a Good Leader, Anyway?

In a recent post, I defined a leader:

“A leader is somebody with the ability to cause a group of people to affect change”

This was the first step in describing a practical, actionable model of leadership — a model we can actually use in building startups and high-growth organizations.


So what makes a good leader?

As with a definition of leadership, we can find many takes, often with a vague, almost mystical point of view.

Here are a couple of shots at it from Business Week

“Leadership is when you give of yourself for the greater good of others with no expectation of reward. It’s that willingness to jump in a ditch with your whole team so that the next time they fall in, everyone understands the best and easiest way to get out.” — Roxanne Reed, executive director of the Military Spouse Foundation.

“(Leadership is) the ability to make your followers believe that you possess superior knowledge of the situation, greater wisdom to cope with the unknown, or greater moral force” — Tom Hopkins, author of 14 books, including “How to Master the Art of Selling” (Business Plus, 2005).

Neither of these work for me: working with no expectation of reward is completely admirable, but isn’t going to fly in Silicon Valley. And trying to make your followers believe you have superior knowledge in a high-growth tech company is probably the quickest way to fail as a leader.

These are examples. There are many others. Most of them list excellent qualities we’d love to have in ourselves, and leaders we are developing. But we end up with a combined, unordered list which is internally consistent, and hopelessly long.


A Great Leader: A Definition

Here’s a simple definition of a good to great leader, again driven from experience with the people I’ve worked with who have clearly been in that category.

“A great leader is someone who causes other people to affect positive change far beyond their and the organization’s expectations”

Some things to note about this definition:

  • the change is positive. There are leaders who cause enormous, but destructive, change. We want to exclude them from our definition.
  • the leader causes people to stretch, to open up and to achieve much more than they felt they could.
  • the leader causes the group to surprise the organization — to push it outside what was previously felt to be possible.
  • the effect of the change is relative to the organization. We can’t all run GM or be Steve Jobs. Being a great leader of a school, or local police force, or city council can have an enormous and lasting impact on hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

Subjective? Sure. Actionable? I think so.


Next Steps

I have a practical goal in working on this definition: I develop leaders in high-growth organizations. Having a clear, workable definition of leadership is fundamental to that work.

As always, I’m interested in how this definition resonates with readers who are leaders in startups and high-growth organizations.

What’s next? Well, what does a leader do, anyway?

I look forward to your comments!


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