What do you look for in a great leader? Do you know leaders who don’t hold the most senior-level positions? When you look for those defining characteristics, ask, “What do they do? How does their behavior reflect what they say?

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing.”

Albert Schweitzer

My view of leadership has evolved. I have soaked in the philosophies and perspectives of many people. W. Edwards Deming, Simon Sinek, Seth Godin, Stephen Covey, Jim Collins, and Ed Catmull to name a few. Without a doubt, I would not, could not omit Dr. Seuss. I learn from the leaders I encounter every day. A few, the great ones, modeled the essence of leadership.

Define leadership

You should read many perspectives on leadership. Form your theory. Create your unique version of yourself as a leader.

I made the mistake of not giving a clear definition of how I viewed leadership. A conference participant came up to me after my presentation with this reminder.

“You defined engagement. You explained the role of leadership in engaging employees. But you never defined leadership. Leadership can mean different things to different people.”

I could not refute his reprimand. My lesson that day—don’t assume leadership means the same to everyone. Start with a common language and understanding of what makes a leader.

How do I define leadership? You may agree or disagree. You must focus on what matters to you. I have a simple definition of a leader—someone I choose to follow.

A simple definition of a leader—someone I choose to follow.

The leaders I follow may not have the position of CEO. Yet they inspire me to commit my very best. These true leaders may be members of my team. They don’t have the highest, most prestigious position. Rather, they may have the job that we consider the lowest. They can still lead.

Seven characteristics

What do I look for in a leader? You and I may vary on the most crucial characteristics of leaders. These seven characteristics show up every time in the leaders I choose to follow.

Exemplifies integrity

Leaders speak with clarity about what they will not compromise. I know where they stand and what they stand for.

Communicates and clarifies the mission

I never wonder about our purpose. The leaders I follow make the mission clear. They paint a vivid picture of the future. I understand why we do this work. Have you ever had a leader who says, “I’ll know it when I see it”? Great leaders don’t settle for guesswork. They ensure that you know the steps ahead.

We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.

Simon Sinek

Models personal and organizational values

I want you to speak about your personal and organizational beliefs. I won’t believe you until your actions consistently and over time reflect those beliefs.

Builds relationships

I appreciate a leader who takes the time to know me. They listen with intent. Those individuals inspire and encourage with empathy. But they know the benefit of holding me accountable so I can grow into a leader.

Demonstrates transparency

Strong leaders do not fear the truth. They also do not fear speaking the truth.

The bottom line is, when people are crystal clear about the most important priorities of the organization and team they work with and prioritized their work around those top priorities, not only are they many times more productive, they discover they have the time they need to have a whole life.

Stephen Covey

Initiates rather than reacts

How often do you feel like a firefighter? Putting out large or small fires all day disrupts and exhausts even the strongest among us. Great leaders resist criticism and remain persistent in their goals. They challenge the status quo. Change requires letting go of the past. Otherwise, it limits the potential for excellence. We all lose.

Accepts accountability

The leader who takes responsibility for actions does not blame others. She admits when she is wrong. When a leader holds us accountable for results, he clears the path. No barriers sabotage our success.

Be patient. Be authentic. And be consistent. The trust will come.

Ed Catmull

Wanted: great leaders

We need great leaders when the going gets tough. Challenges overtake us and become so burdensome that we cannot move forward. We get stuck in the cycle of repeating what we do and expecting something different to occur.

Leaders create clarity. They remove obstacles and give us a picture of the future worth our effort and commitment. You, too, can start leading today. There are three things you can do.

Organizations, even small ones, rarely have only one leader. The great leaders depend on a team of leaders. They understand that building leaders throughout the organization creates a culture of respect.

A place where we value the talent within ourselves and others. We have the courage, and safety, to be and become our best.

You don’t have to be in charge or powerful or pretty or connected to be a leader. You DO have to be committed.”

Seth Godin

Do you aspire to leadership? Start with any one of those seven characteristics. We need great leaders—and that may be you

And always—

Be kind. Be brave. Be you.

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