This may sound like a strange question coming from someone who professes everyone has leadership traits and is, in fact a leader in one form or another. After all, a leader influences others, and whether we know it or not, we do that every day.
But a ‘great leader’ is someone who awakens others to the possibilities and inspires them to attain them, and who does it consistently regardless of circumstance and for a variety of people. To be considered a ‘great leader’ one must be perceived as such time after time by a majority of people.
One of the reasons there may be less ‘great leaders’ than we would like is because we cannot use a single characteristic, or even a finite set of factors to define and identify leadership; that is far too simplistic a view of leadership. Leadership is an intricate and complex blend of environment, people and circumstances. And even when you may think all things are equal, they are not, for the same leadership behaviors, even in the same set of circumstances, can be viewed differently by each individual. Leadership is hard!
We have three children. We love them all most dearly, we provided them with the same opportunities, imposed the same set of rules, and yet they respond differently. Take for example the way each acted in a similar situation. We were driving on a warm summer day and I turned on the air conditioner, asking them to be sure the windows were rolled up. It was apparent that all three wanted to the window open, for the responses I got were:
- My first born proceeded to roll the window back up; what ensued was a 10 minute argument of ‘why,’ ‘you’re not the boss of me,’ ‘I never get to do what I want to do,’ and more. Now he was and is a great child/person, but that was his nature – an extrovert and a strong type A personality.
- My middle child rolled up the window without a sound. A few minutes later I heard sobbing from the back seat. When I asked her ‘what’s the matter,’ she said she wanted the window open. She, too, was and is a wonderful person, but very much an introvert.
- My third child did not roll up the window. For the next five minutes, with the window down, she proceeded to tell me all the benefits of fresh air, why it was good for us, that people don’t get enough of it… She wasn’t being disrespectful, just assertive in her opinion. She was and is a questioner.
We all experience the same things at work. We set policies and procedures to create what we think is a favorable environment that fosters engagement, but many leaders do not recognize that everyone reacts differently. That it is more important to treat people as individuals than as an ‘asset’ that must be managed. There are disgruntled employees who will challenge actions, there are employees who will be compliant but ‘hurt’ by the decisions, and there are employees who are not afraid to question actions, presenting a different view of what is being done.
These people are in every organization and are why ‘great leaders’ are hard to find; to quote Dylan Moran, “You can’t please everyone, nor should you seek to, because then you won’t please anyone, least of all yourself.” Great leaders understand this and do what is best for all.