Leadership 101: More is Caught Than Taught

"Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others." - John C. Maxwell

There are hundreds of quotes that illustrate the meaning of leadership, some more poignantly than others. Let's see, there's this famous one by John Quincy Adams: "If your actions inspire others to dream more, do more and become more, you are a leader." And don't forget Andrew Carnegie's "No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it." 

There's No 'i' in 'Leader'

No matter how you describe it, there’s no ‘i’ in ‘leader.’ The words of well-known leaders, both past and present, have been immortalized so that we may all collectively uphold the principle that leadership is more about our influence over others than it is about ourselves. Many aspiring leaders stumble over this concept believing that, in order to achieve leadership, there’s a predetermined set of actions they need to take. They might try their hardest to stand out in a new role, striving to be recognized for merit and performance. They may be labeled a leader by those who recognize the potential within them, they may be promoted, and they may earn the respect of their peers. But these things alone do not cultivate true leadership. There’s certainly nothing wrong with striving or even overachieving, but leadership isn’t a title or some fancy letters you get to add to your name after obtaining a certification. Leadership is often a silent credential, and there are many dos and don’ts to learn along the way. 

Being C-Level Doesn't Make You a Leader

Some guys have all the luck. Charm, charisma, enthusiasm, a gently commanding presence…and others, well, not so much. There are, indubitably, cases of accidental leadership – inherited, best available, unchallenged, you may even say undeserved. But in the case of leaders who are more than just your bosses or superiors, there’s typically some universally accepted formula for their influence (and I’m not talking about C-suite titles, business savvy, or fancy suits). 

Ingredients of Quality Leadership

Make-your-own, DIY, and customized products and services are all the rage today. We even have the ability to modify the genetic makeup of certain foods! So, if you could choose the qualities of a leader like ingredients from a supermarket and put them in a blender to make a leadership smoothie, what would you be drinking? Humility and grace? Honesty and compassion? Decisiveness and approachability? Authenticity and objectivity? Many of the people who are considered leaders today, whether unsung or well-known, most likely posses more than one of those traits. Maybe they’re also receptive and strategic. Responsive and tactful. Adaptable and responsible. Transparent and trustworthy. But if you were to poll a bunch of companies and ask the employees to describe the person or people at the helm, you can be certain that among the top qualities of well-liked and respected leaders you’d see adjectives like empathetic, motivational, empowering, kind, inspirational, and engaging. 

More is Caught Than Taught

It has been said that “bad leadership is contagious.” This Forbes.com article by Jack Zenger explains that the effects of leadership, both good and bad, trickle down from the top and have a cumulative effect on an organization. Zenger states, “…good leaders are expending a lot of energy they could be using more productively when they have to manage and act as the buffer for a bad boss. This should be blindingly obvious and, yet, so often in our practice senior leaders ask us to ‘fix’ the leaders below them. The reality is our job would be much easier if the leaders at the top were as highly committed to fixing themselves first. Our premise is clearly proven: leaders cast a strong shadow on those who report to them.”

Zenger’s research further supports the concept that leadership is not about the individual, but the effects he or she has on others. The best leaders are those who lead by example and whose behavior, work ethic, and disposition are consistently worthy of emulation and yield an enjoyable company dynamics. Good leaders tend to leave everything better than they found it; optimism and improvement seem to be hardwired or second-nature to them. These leaders are typically proactive, mindful, even-keeled, and adept at communicating candidly.

Needless to say, employees are much more likely to embrace a company’s directives when the investment and buy-in from their superiors is clear. If a boss or leader is characteristically disengaged, disrespectful, or otherwise behaving negatively, other team members will begin to feel insignificant, misguided, and will be more apt to fall out of line. It’s simple: people mimic the behaviors of those around them, for better or for worse. This can create rapport or discord, and the latter can spread like a virus to poison the company from the inside. 

Leaders Rarely Call Themselves Leaders

Leadership isn’t always a lifelong endeavor – it can be achieved at any time. If you’re already a leader, you may not think of yourself as such. You may not realize that others perceive you as a leader. Even if you don't fulfill a traditional leadership role, if you affect others in a positive way, motivating them to take action and be open to change, then congratulations – you’re a great leader. But if you don’t consider yourself a leader and you aspire to become one, I would offer you two pieces of advice:

  • Don’t be afraid to fail. Aim high, miss high. Try new things; speak up.
  • Pay attention to how you relate to others and how others respond to you. Engage in teamwork whenever possible and try your best to cultivate a sense of support and encouragement among your peers or your department.

Who am I to give such advice? What makes me credible in this department? I don’t know, probably not much, other than having observed plenty of poor leadership and having had the privilege of working for and being friends with some really great leaders. Comparison and hindsight are valuable facets of experience, and experience can be a great stand-in for credibility. 

What Leadership Means to Me

I think much of leadership is about using your gifts. My pastor delivered a church sermon a couple of weeks ago about how being gifted is part of one’s salvation and ignoring our gifts is like stagnating and resisting that sanctification. Whether or not you appreciate the religious analogy, think of the unique gifts (personal or corporate) possessed by a memorable leader in your life: Is he a gifted artist? Is she a talented chef? Is she an enthusiastic team-builder? Is he a captivating public speaker? Does she have the gift of diplomacy? Is he skilled in the art of persuasion? And how much of your perception of this leader is shaped by the ways in which they utilize their gift(s)? Isn’t that much of what you admire about them? How have those gifts contributed to their success? How might their reality be different if they didn’t employ their unique gift(s)?

Leadership also seems to encompass personal development, across the board. Great leaders are always soaking up knowledge and looking for ways to improve and innovate. Many of the leaders who inspire me are known to be avid readers. I was once told to surround myself with people who know what I want to know, have what I want to have, and do what I want to do, and then learn from them, copying them if possible. I’m all for reading personal development material – some call it ‘self help’ but I think in the professional realm it’s not as made-fun-of. Some of my favorite books on leadership are The 360° Leader by John C. Maxwell and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Whether you enjoy books or brushing up on articles and podcasts, reflecting on leadership material is a great way to nurture and shape your perspective towards leadership and even life in general.

Join the Conversation

Do you have an example or a story of a great leader and the qualities that you admire in them? What’s your best advice for future leaders? Do you have a favorite leadership quote? Please share by commenting!