What Makes a Great Leader?

by Jim Brewer

At our private CEO Board last year, one of our speakers, Edgar Papke, spoke on his new book, Elephant in the Boardroom. Often the “elephant in the room” is the CEO. You can imagine the lively conversation among the strong CEOs in the room.

In our group, we have women and men, younger and older, each from a different industry and diverse cultural backgrounds, all leading successful companies from 5m to 500m in top line revenue. For the morning, we discussed leadership. Are we born or are we made?

MakeS Change happen

Edgar Papke suggested that there are three qualities that make a great leader. The first is the ability to be a change maker. “This is an undeniable aspect of the phenomenon of leadership. Those that can create change are looked to as leaders. When they do it on a grander scale, they become our heroes. Like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates, their names are reminders of what is possible,” writes Papke.

Each of the CEOs in the room, in his or her own way, was driving change. One CEO was changing how major brands communicated with ethnic populations, another was bringing new tools and skilled professionals to the technical staffing industry, and yet another was winning market share by manufacturing cost-competitive and innovative sporting goods in eastern Europe.

Great change leaders keep innovating, looking at change in every aspect of their business, and fostering change in their people and themselves.

Confronts Conflict

The second quality of leadership we discussed was the ability to confront conflict. Too often we think of conflict as a bad thing, something to be avoided. It’s not. As Papke reminds us, “When we create change, we invite and confront conflict. The interdependence of change and conflict is one of the great forces and natural tensions of human behavior.”

When we discussed it in the room, confronting conflict was often a difficult challenge. Why? The challenge is rooted in the role we think we play. Are we supposed to be the smartest person in the room, the one with all the answers? When confronting conflict, we know we don’t have all the answers. Almost all of us, sometimes only in back of our minds concealed from everyone, face “imposter syndrome.” Somebody may find out we don’t know everything. They will think we are incompetent. So, we avoid conflict. We don’t have that difficult conversation with the senior leader, we chose to ignore the subtle signals that teamwork is lacking, and problems are emerging.

The great leader knows that conflict comes with the territory and creates a culture that confronts it.

Looks inward first

The third and perhaps the most important quality for a great leader is self-awareness. Those leaders can not only see the opportunity to change, see and engage with conflict, they can see themselves.

Edgar Papke says it well, “As a leader, you are expected to be a lifelong learner and strive for self-knowledge at deeper levels, requiring you to develop your social and emotional intelligence. Only then will you open up to the continual self-improvement and learning needed to become a great leader.”

This sounds sort of wishy-washy to many leaders. “What does emotion have to do with business decisions?” “Social? My job is to lead my people; not befriend or parent them.” It’s the bull-in-the-china-shop syndrome. The symptoms of the unaware leader are obvious to everyone else. Their people are afraid to have an out-of-the-box idea and be criticized or they wait in line for praise from on high. The unaware leader seldom listens, never shares personal or professional vulnerability, sweeps reality under the rug, and looks for blame.

Ok. Maybe it’s not that bad. You know that it is no longer a command and control world. But how do you find self-knowledge at deeper levels?

Where won’t you find self-knowledge? The first place is your own mind. Our minds are rationalizing machines. You keep talking to yourself and expecting a different answer. Try a conversation instead. Do you have friends, colleagues, a confidant, that will tell you the truth? Even a truth you don’t want to hear? Will they hold you accountable for your commitments?

How about books? Blogs like this? Inspirational TED talks? Maybe, but if diet books worked we would all be skinny. The breakthrough occurs not when you hear the information, but when you act on it. Can you make it a habit? Who will hold you accountable? Will you take action?

I will give you one tip that may help in your search for self-awareness. Use science. Each of our leaders use a personality assessment test called The Predictive Index. It takes 10 minutes. Almost always the first reaction of our leaders is, “It nailed me. How can something that easy be that insightful?” Beyond confirming what you already know about yourself, it points the upsides and downsides of various characteristics. The real power often comes when your entire team does PI and then looks at what that means in the dynamics of change and conflict. Read our next post, and find out what it means to have the “Right People in the Right Seats.”

Sorry, there is no perfect profile for a great leader. But as Edgar Papke reminds us, there is real benefit in knowing who YOU are.

How do you start? Click TAKE ACTION. Let’s have a 20-minute conversation, no obligation. Maybe you will find you are a candidate for our By-Invitation-Only CEO SEAL team, or you may want a framework to make running your business more profitable, easier, and more fun, or maybe you just want to talk about that issue bugging you and would like some free advice… Be a great leader. Take action.

Josh Neimark