What does it mean to be a great leader?

Here are 11 actions a leader may take, such as 'caring about people'

Lessons learned from observer or expert by Hilary Weber
December 2, 2013
Short URL:

In a recent online issue of Entrepreneur magazine, Tim Nguyen, co-founder at Masterplan, describes the challenges of being founder of a startup at age 22. Nguyen says, "As the founder of a startup, everything starts with you. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs have no idea what it means to be a great leader. I was the founder and chief executive of my own company in 2002. I was accountable for everything at my company. I certainly felt like a CEO, but after eight years, I realized I was not, and I was lost. I was young. I didn't have any business mentors. I was on a soul search that eventually would lead me to understand my true role." 

Sound familiar? If so, you're not alone. What makes a great leader? 

Great leaders make people feel that they're at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. A leader ensures that everyone on the team feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the company. 

Actions a leader takes may include:

  • Building cooperation among employees, particularly in times of conflict
  • Fostering collaboration among employees and departments 
  • Being confident and making and carrying out difficult decisions
  • Resolving issues with a cool head
  • Setting priorities
  • Using innovation, creativity, and enthusiasm to solve new issues
  • Having the courage to take a stand on issues and say what you believe 
  • Being a person of high standards and exhibiting integrity
  • Caring about people
  • Being capable and getting the job done, despite obstacles
  • Calling on the expertise of others when you don't have the knowledge at hand.

The real issue - most of us aren't born leaders. Like any muscle in our bodies, we need to build and then strengthen our leadership skills. What skills make someone a great leader?  

I was listening to the Diane Rehms show on NPR (National Public Radio) and leadership was being discussed. Daniel Goleman was her guest. Goleman, author of Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence (Selected Writings) is an internationally known psychologist whose been writing about leadership for decades. He first reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years and in 1998 wrote in the Harvard Business Review what the publication calls one of its ten "must-read" articles of all time.

According to Goleman, three abilities that distinguish the best leaders from average include: 1) self-awareness - knowing your strengths and limits and strengthening your inner ethical radar; 2) self-management - leading yourself effectively; and 3) empathy - reading other people accurately. He says you put all those together in every act of leadership.

In the book, he discusses intelligence versus IQ and what he calls a competency framework. He says,"Emotional Intelligence (EI) competencies are learned abilities such as the drive to achieve and emotional self-control, both of which build on underlying EI components like self-management. Self-awareness is one of four EI domains. The others are: self-management, social awareness, and relationship management." 

Goleman suggests that a powerful way for founders and CEOs to boost self-awareness is to undergo a 360-degree evaluation by people you know well and trust in evaluating you on the EI competencies. Carried out with integrity, 360-degree feedback allows individuals to understand how his or her effectiveness as a founder, CEO, employee, coworker, or staff member is viewed by others. The most effective 360-degree feedback processes provide feedback that is based on behaviors that other employees can see. Behavior is learned and can be changed. Just ask any mother of a highly spirited 2-year-old. 

Psychology is important and understanding the needs of employees and customers is vital in the startup environment. Why? Goleman says, "For employees, how a leader makes them feel plays a large role in their level of motivation, commitment, and even drives their brain in (or out of) the best zone for marshaling whatever cognitive abilities and skills they bring to the job. And for customers and clients, how they feel about their interactions with the people in your organization determines how they feel about the company as a whole." 

The bottom line -- if you can't manage yourself, you can't manage someone else. The ability to manage yourself - to have self-awareness and self-regulation - is the very basis of managing others.  

"Science has learned that if you're tuned out of your own emotions, you'll be poor at reading them in other people. And if you can't fine-tune your own actions - keeping yourself from blowing up or falling to pieces, marshaling positive drives - you'll be poor at handling the people you deal with. Star leaders are stars at leading themselves, first, "Goleman says.  Great food for thought, don't you agree?

(Image source: jonathanbenz)