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What It Takes to Be a Leader

Leadership skills can be clearly defined and developed.

Key points

  • Leaders pursue their vision with determination but also with flexibility.
  • Planning and organization are key qualities of a leader; you can’t make it up as you go along.
  • The best leaders learn to communicate and collaborate; leadership is a social, not a solitary, undertaking.
  • Leaders take responsibility; they do not deflect or make excuses.
Flexible shoe
Source: PICRYL

In my work with leaders—and their would-be counterparts—I have identified certain key qualities. The first is “vision,” the need to define what you want to accomplish in view of the constraints of time, money, and your own competing needs.

Do you want to build a trucking company, run a family business, strike out on your own in real estate? Well, there may be compromises you will need to make and a lot of false starts that you’ll have to double back on. So, what degree of compromise and disappointment can you accept and still maintain your initiative? How do you put together a support network and recalibrate your vision as you experience its implications in your life and the lives of people around you?

The second quality is a pair: determination and flexibility. That is, once you understand your vision, you must find the will and external resources to pursue it. The emotional/psychological and mundane practical considerations of leadership are inseparable. Accordingly, flexibility (and its necessary component, empathy) is necessary for a determined pursuit of a vision. You must cultivate trust among the widening circle of people affected by your initiatives. In this sense, determination-and-flexibility (paired) are about maintaining balance among the competing considerations you will encounter along the way, always recognizing that “balance” is not the same as stasis—the strategies that you use to remain determined are likely to always change.

The third consideration, planning and organization, is largely about logistics. If we like to think grand thoughts, how do we develop an interest in the nitty-gritty? How (conversely) do we conceptualize the big picture? Can we discern what’s coming next and when to emphasize what? Planning and organization are as much a source of anxiety as pursuing a vision but are, in fact, just down-to-earth versions of that pursuit. Moreover, as in every stage of leadership, how can we rely on others without surrendering our initial vision? This becomes a particular challenge as our enterprise grows and matures.

The fourth concern, communication and collaboration, is based on the idea that leadership is never lonely. An everyday leader—who seeks help where they can find it —must connect with other people. They should make themselves understood and, ideally, appreciated. To move their plans forward, they must inspire. Such connection is ongoing, even though with whom they connect and how they connect may change. The point is that leaders are networkers. I use the term “connection” here because it is general—it applies to both communication and collaboration. But if you think about it, effective communication is a prerequisite of collaboration. They’re joined at the hip, like determination and flexibility. Thus, collaboration is impossible unless the leader makes their case.

The fifth quality, responsibility, concerns a character trait necessary to leaders who must step up and take ownership of disappointing situations without deflecting blame or offering excuses. Assuming responsibility tests a leader’s mettle and can determine what people think of them over the long haul. Is this leader honest? Is he or she strong and strategic enough to get out in front of situations before the fallout overtakes a whole enterprise? These are major questions, if only because trust is so crucial to a leader’s continuing success.

However, responsibility also refers to looking after a project or an enterprise so that its wheels stay well-oiled and everyone involved with it stays employed, satisfied, and high-functioning. It requires clearing away obstacles, as well as mentoring the next generation of leaders and vital employees. So, responsibility is almost about cultivating what might be considered old-fashioned virtues, in the face of more prominent leaders who think of themselves as hired problem-solvers and never commit themselves long-term. Responsibility, therefore, comes back around to having and pursuing a vision in the right way. In the long-term, a vision falters unless the one pursuing it displays responsibility.

Obviously, all these qualities intersect. You can’t, for example, devise a good plan unless you’re flexible. The implication is that leaders need to be well-rounded and develop an array of qualities needed to confront the various challenges that they will face. Of course, this takes time, and some leaders are born on third base. Nonetheless, most people find the means when the pressure is on. They survive.

It is encouraging that modern neuroscience is on the side of my approach to leadership as a social activity. Donald Pfaff’s Origins of Human Socialization (2021) observes that “It is crucial to understand the compelling evidence for our natural sociable affinities. . . By ‘affinity’ I mean a spontaneous natural liking or sympathy for another person, an interest in forming a bond or relationship.” Pfaff traces the development of hearing and sight, for example, and examines how they contributed to humans’ becoming “naturally” social. He examines the brain mechanisms involved in socialization and our related genetics. My view is situated alongside this discourse, i.e., ordinary people have the natural capacity to assume leadership roles. We must work with this capacity. We must work on it if we’ve never ventured outside our comfort zones.

Of course, if you embark on a leadership project, no matter how challenging, it’s still only part of your life. You are still you. That is, you need to know when to wind down, stop obsessing, and live a life outside of taking charge. Thus, even if you are laser-focused on the job, you can kick back when you’re back home. Leaders should remember to relax. They should learn to separate themselves from work.

By the same token, they should not let purely personal aspirations infiltrate their work. You might think, “Oh, I want to be liked.” But catch yourself and recognize that that’s your everyday self talking, not your Everyday Leader. You should maintain a discrete distance between the two, adjusted as appropriate to the situation. In time, you should learn that who you are and what you are will not always be the same.

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