What makes great leaders stand out and what do they do differently?

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” ~ Isaac Newton.

The best way to understand these qualities that differentiate great leaders is through the examples of legends that have excelled in their field of endeavour. To stand on the shoulders of giants as Newton put it. So let’s start by understanding what leadership is first. Leadership is a subject that is very misunderstood and yet so vital when it comes to attracting, retaining and developing talent. My definition of leadership is helping someone see their own potential and worth so clearly that they are inspired to realise their potential and the help others do the same. This is very different to management, which is focused on tasks, bottom line, processes, and efficiencies. Leadership is focused on people, relationships, top line, and effectiveness. Leadership goes beyond a role and title; it is a choice and a way of being. So what qualities differentiate great leaders?

  1. One of the greatest qualities of exceptional leaders is awareness and being real. Very often how we perceive people and situations can be different from how they actually are. So having a solid and grounded take on reality (not what you just think is reality, but truly be aware of what is real and what is not) is an essential starting point to progressing in any endeavour. Benjamin Franklin worked on his 13 virtues relentlessly.
  1. Leaders step up and take charge. They take great responsibility for making things happen in their lives. No more hitting and hoping and giving up after selling out for the easy road. They respond in a very progressive and positive manner and not let their egos or bias get in the way of what is best. Helen Keller overcame her frustration of being blind and deaf.
  1. Leaders have a compelling vision. They know what they want and why they want it. This is where their passion, motivation, commitment and discipline come from. As the saying goes, “without a vision, the people perish.” J.K. Rowling wrote her first book as a single parent and was rejected by 12 publishers.
  1. Leaders lead from an authentic place. They have a very good understanding of themselves and therefore are able to lead from their values. They are inside - out and because of this they are very influential people. They are not concerned by what others think of them; instead they influence others based on their inner sense of security, guidance, wisdom and power. Mahatma Gandhi building his influence in India’s journey to independence.
  1. Leaders know how to get what they want. They bring their compelling vision to reality one step at a time. Nikola Tesla would plan his ideas in immense detail.
  1. Leaders have the greater good and the interests of others at heart. They think win-win or no deal because they know anything less means lose-lose ultimately. Nelson Mandela transforming South Africa into a rainbow nation.
  1. Leaders are socially warm people and relate to people. Every truly successful person will tell you that to create the greatest impact in your life you must build a depth of mutual understanding, trust and respect with the right people. Oprah Winfrey is arguably one of the most influential women in the world.
  1. Leaders collaborate and synergise. They know how to achieve what they want through bringing the right people into their lives on a win-win or no deal basis. Having a strong network of people (both a support network and strategic network) is essential to long-term success. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs called themselves the Four Vagabonds as part of their mastermind group.
  1. Leaders are constantly innovating, quantifying and orchestrating. Simply put they ask questions all the time and turn problems into opportunities. They preempt challenges and bring contingencies to the table. They are incredibly resourceful. Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Co, had his factory bombed in WW2 and then an earthquake level another factory.
  1. Leaders influence and help others realise their potential. They help others become more effective and successful by empowering them, not controlling them. They are leaders and teachers. Jack Welch transformed General Electric’s culture and focus.

How can you begin to develop or enhance these qualities of great leaders? I’m a big believer in that we all have great potential, so it’s about realising that potential through the right knowledge, focus, and people. Practically, I would suggest the following in developing yourself as a better leader…

  • Knowledge - Invest in learning form legends.
  • Focus - Understand your gaps (both internal and external gaps) in the context of your endeavour.
  • People - Find someone / a mentor who can help you apply what you learn and help you follow through. Anything less you’re just another book on the shelf collecting dust.
  • Help others - teach once, learn twice is a great adage I’m a firm believer in.

All the best in your endeavours and hopefully you will be a greater inspiration to others. By Shaun Cooper, Director & Leadership Consultant at Lighthouse International Group Shaun.Cooper@lig.global

Posted on 31.03.2015

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