You don’t have to hold a position in order to be a leader.Henry Ford
What does it mean to be a leader? Does it mean being an authority figure over others, or is there more to it? A quick look at the business world illuminates people who practice true leadership. Take Meg Whitman as an example. As CEO of eBay, Whitman helped take the company from $5 million in revenue to over $8 billion. She would later go on to turn around Hewlett-Packard at a time when the company was struggling to survive.
But financial success doesn’t always indicate a leader. It was Whitman’s leadership style that set her apart from her peers. According to people who worked with her, Whitman challenged others to be better, stimulating them with questions that encouraged them to break through boundaries. She advocated for more open communication in the workplace, tearing down barriers that prevented employees from speaking with executives. Whitman used her influence to help others, and the business benefited as a result.
Whitman is a good example of leadership either making or breaking a company. Poor leadership can often lead to problems. According to a survey from Zenger Folkman, uninspiring leaders result in almost half of direct reports thinking of quitting, while only 23 percent of employees consider themselves engaged. Other reports indicate that up to 75 percent of employees say the worst part of their job is their boss. If companies want to see increases in productivity, employee satisfaction, innovation, and job retention, they need to recognize and value true leadership.
In this article, learn about the following:
- What it means to be a leader
- The main qualities of a good leader
- The three roles great leaders must play for their teams
- How to grow the skills you need to become an effective leader
What Does It Mean to Be a Leader?
So, what is a leader? John Maxwell has a famous quote about the definition of leadership that says, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” From this quote, it’s easy to see that a great leader is someone who has gone down a particular path. They know the correct way to go, and they’re willing to act as a guide for others to follow. That leader might not be the most eloquent or outgoing, but they are willing to risk it all to show people there’s a better way.
Great leaders are influential figures who teach essential leadership skills to those around them. Through their work, they create an infinite cycle of leadership, positively impacting others (even after they’re gone). Just look at the legacy a leader like Steve Jobs left behind. Though he passed away in 2011, more than a decade later, Apple still looks to him as an example of a free-thinker and innovator who focused on excellence. Additionally, out of all the leadership styles, many entrepreneurs and top performers still want to emulate his to produce strong results in business.
A leader can appear at any level of a company, especially if that company works to cultivate leadership among its team members. Leaders are those who want to make something of themselves. They seek to grow every day and improve their skills for the duration of their lives. For them, self-development is an ongoing process.
What Are the 3 Most Important Roles of a Leader?
So, what does leadership mean to you? Leaders can take on many different roles, sometimes even during the same day. When it comes to strong leadership, most leaders will take on three roles that are the most influential.
Role #1: Guide
A leader who acts as a guide is the person who shows you how to get things done. They provide the roadmap that you need to follow. Guides understand the destination, so they’ll show you the steps you need to get there.
It’s best to think of a guide as the mentor figure from Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. The guiding figures have valuable experience they choose to pass on to the hero. Think of famous guides like Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Yoda. They demonstrate empathy and wisdom while helping the hero win along the journey. This is how a mentor acts.
A guiding leader provides the opportunity for kinesthetic learning, or in other words, learning by watching someone do it, then doing it yourself. Think of how much easier it is to do something new when you have someone showing you every step of the process. They can even correct you along the way, ensuring you stay on the right path. In this way, guides act like coaches, encouraging and correcting as needed.
Role #2: Chief
A chief is like the head of a household or a parent. While it might be tempting for some leaders to simply dictate what others need to do, a leader acting as a chief gives the explanation for doing it. They focus on the “why” behind an action.
Just like a parent, a chief is responsible for being nurturing and loving but also giving structure to people’s lives. They teach good habits and systems for them to follow. Additionally, they’re preparing someone to take over one day. In this way, they help build future leaders.
When someone explains the reasoning behind decisions, it makes those decisions easier to accept. Chiefs go deep into their explanations. They paint a picture that is easy for others to imagine. A leader who acts as a chief treats others like adults. They consider their team members to be smart and understanding, so they don’t hesitate to provide them with the information and resources they need.
Role #3: Tree
When a leader acts as a tree, they set down strong roots that won’t allow them to move from their spot. These roots represent the leader’s core identity, purpose, values, beliefs, and character. They are the unshakeable foundation upon which everything else is built. Like a tree needs healthy roots to thrive, a leader must show integrity for everything else to work.
By nurturing relationships with friends, family, and mentors, a tree-like leader grows in wisdom and awareness. Along the way, they develop the knowledge, skills, and discipline that will turn them into a great leader. These eventually blossom into the passions and strengths many on the outside notice. They also develop leaves, or the charismatic nature so many leaders demonstrate. As they continue to nurture these aspects, a tree-like leader eventually develops the fruit, or success, from their efforts.
5 Top Qualities of Great Leaders
While there are many ways to define what it means to be a leader, it all starts with possessing the best leadership qualities. Developing the following leadership skills will help you become an effective leader. Note that these traits only scratch the surface of what it means to be a leader.
1. Serves Others
Servant leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, they don’t work for you; you work for them.Ken Blanchard
A great leader practices servant leadership with all those around them. They seek to lift up people and help them become their best selves. They lead by not thinking about themselves but about what they can do to make the world a better place. Many business leaders such as David Green of Hobby Lobby and Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A made servant leadership a defining part of who they are as leaders.
How to be a servant leader:
- Focus on developing your team members.
- Look for ways to serve your community.
- Listen to others and think of ways you can help.
- Be a positive influence in the lives of people.
- Lead people with a positive outlook on the future.
Every problem has a solution, although it may not be the outcome that was originally hoped for or expected.Alice Hoffman
When you run into a problem, many people will complain or offer up excuses. A leader, on the other hand, will focus on the solution. Effective leaders embrace the challenges that problems provide. Even when it seems like there is no remedy to an issue, they don’t give up. Instead, they opt to brainstorm creative solutions. Because of their development in problem-solving, they know how to find solutions more often than not. When leaders become problem-solvers, they view every problem as an opportunity to learn and grow. Nothing is impossible to them, which is why so many in their organization look to them when things get difficult.
How to problem-solve creatively:
- Review the goal you have established.
- Be flexible if you need to refine your strategy.
- Identify the origin of the main problem.
- Research possible solutions to that main problem.
- Stick with a decision-making process for narrowing solutions down to the best choice.
- Create an action plan you and others can follow that will solve the problem.
A duty dodged is like a debt unpaid; it is only deferred, and we must come back and settle the account at last.Joseph Fort Newton
The best leaders hold themselves accountable, no matter the circumstances. As much as it might be tempting to place the blame on others, authentic leaders make no excuses and understand that they are ultimately responsible. When a leader practices accountability, others take notice and begin to do the same. Once a whole organization is filled with such team members, collaboration and harmony increase, leading to higher productivity and innovation levels.
Jocko Willink best describes this attitude in Extreme Ownership. Accountability is one thing all great leaders must practice. As he puts it, “Good leaders don’t make excuses. Instead, they figure out a way to get it done.” They own everything within their sphere of influence and don’t try to shift responsibility when things go wrong. Willick describes this when writing, “Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.”
How to practice self-accountability:
- Don’t be selective about when you hold yourself accountable.
- Take full ownership of everything within your sphere of influence.
- Note when you make mistakes, and learn from them.
- Communicate with the group when you’ve made a mistake.
- Always have a plan in mind for correcting a mistake.
People should pursue what they’re passionate about. That will make them happier than pretty much anything else.Elon Musk
Another one of the top leadership skills they should have is passion. Leaders must exhibit a passion for what they’re pursuing. With a combination of patience and passion, they can instill in others motivation for following a goal. Being passionate keeps leaders enthusiastic even during downtimes. It’s the element that keeps them pushing forward with energy. Leaders should always balance their passion with patience since, without it, they may experience higher stress, burnout, and a shorter temper.
How to increase your patience to take advantage of your passion:
- Understand that impatience often leads to negative consequences.
- Identify what triggers impatience within you.
- Engage in mindfulness practices such as meditation or breathing exercises.
- Increase your empathy for others.
- Don’t be afraid to take things at a slower pace.
The secret of happiness: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.Daniel C. Dennett
A true leader leads with a purpose. They have a vision for the future that others can follow. They move forward with optimism as they look to change the world for the better. When a leader is purpose-driven, they have a central focus around which everything else revolves. They also communicate that vision to others, getting them fired up about it. Everything, from a company’s overall strategy to who they hire, stems from that purpose. It is exemplified in a vision statement everyone can read and understand.
How to write a vision statement:
- Be clear about your company’s “why.”
- Brainstorm what you envision for the future.
- Draft several versions of your vision statement.
- Get feedback on those versions from friends, family, and colleagues.
- Revise your statement until you have one you are happy with.
- Begin implementing that vision in your daily work.
Being a Leader vs. Boss
Leaders develop their skill set to gain followers who willingly commit to their mission, while a boss is simply someone who receives a position of authority and provides orders. Here are the main characteristics that determine the difference between leader vs. boss:
- Bosses enforce accountability, while leaders create it.
- Bosses look for easy fixes, while leaders focus on long-term solutions.
- Leaders learn, rather than assuming they’re already experts.
- A leader listens and never shuts down communication.
- Bosses are driven by numbers, while leaders are driven by values.
Being a Leader Means Dedicating Yourself to Personal Growth
Being a leader isn’t just about influencing those around you. It’s also about committing yourself to grow as a person and professional every day.
Make self-improvement and personal growth a priority for yourself. Schedule time every day to learn and grow. Additionally, seek out a mentor who knows the ropes and understands how you can improve. Doing so will help you cultivate a growth mindset that maximizes your influence and drives impact.
For more inspiration about being a leader, check out these quotes on leadership.