What do Great Leaders Do?

From the November 2008 Aspire Newsletter:

As of this moment, there were 167,000,00 Google results for the word, “leadership”. No wonder we’re all confused about what it means to be a “great leader” – everyone has an opinion!

So here I am to confuse and baffle you further with my own opinions about what great leaders do. I’ve thought long and hard about this, read as many books as anyone on the topic, and observed the good, bad, and ugly of leadership to get here. My own top ten list isn’t scientific, but I tried to consider timeless, classic behaviors that support “greatness” in leadership. Just one way to look at it.

I’m open to changing my mind. What do GREAT leaders do, in your opinion?

1. They listen: Great leaders listen for context, emotion and “what’s behind the words”. They are strategic about providing their opinions and know that the best leadership often occurs when they are intentionally silent.

2. They are not afraid to ask questions: Great leaders are not afraid to be seen as not knowing the answers to everything. They are willing to ask questions that they don’t know the answers to. They ask powerful questions in service to other’s learning, and in the process, they learn a lot themselves.

3. They have a positive attitude: They express a positive attitude, even when the going gets tough. This is not the Pollyanna, stick your head in the sand-type of optimism. This is positivity with a good dose of grounded realism.

4. They are humble: Great leaders know that they aren’t perfect. They are willing to admit their vulnerabilities and apologize for their mistakes. They work hard to do better the next time.

5. They let go of the need to control everything: They have learned that when they work too hard to control everything, they almost always end up with outcomes they hadn’t expected, a team that is frustrated and personal burn-out. They coach their followers to achieve the best outcomes. Then, they hold them accountable. Great leaders refrain from meddling.

6. They exploit the word “we”: Great leaders know that they are not responsible for all of the brilliant accomplishments that happen on their watch. The words “We did (fill in the blank)” are a frequent part of their vocabulary.

7. They are genuine: They do the inner work of defining the values that give their life and their leadership meaning. They are not afraid to express these values openly and to model them daily.

8. They encourage their followers to express their diverse gifts: Great leaders understand the power of diversity of thought and action on their teams. They encourage this diversity and know it will serve them and their organizations well.

9. They model “human potential”: Great leaders believe in life-long learning. They are driven to excel. They personally model continuous improvement and strive to work to their full potential. They coach others to develop and work to their own full potential.

10. They are grateful: Great leaders are genuinely thankful for those whom they lead. They are quick to express their gratitude and to do so with meaning.

Here’s to being a great leader!

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

4 comments on “What do Great Leaders Do?

  1. What a great top ten list! I agree with you on all counts, and I think that as economic systems and business models continue to grow and change, we’ll see more humane leaders emerge.

    Have you had a chance to read Noble Enterprise by Darwin Gillett? It’s a really inspiring read, and a direction I hope we see more business leaders following.

  2. Hi Ruth,

    Thanks for your comments. It is very hard to be a leader today, and sometimes the economic systems and business models pull (foundationally) humane leaders in directions that compromise their values. This “top ten” list is meant to be timeless and to transcend whatever else is happening in the external environment.

    Thanks also for the book suggestion, I’ll check it out. I’m always looking for new reading material – even better if it is inspiring.

  3. You have a great list there.

    I like to sum it up by saying “Getting things done through other people, willingly and well.”

    Getting things done because that is what it’s all about. I.e. getting things done is about
    doing stuff. Through other people, because largely you can’t do it all yourself. Willingly, i.e.
    they actually want to do it because they’re motivated to do it. And well, because you’ve
    trained them to do it well.


  4. Thanks for your comments Andrew. I like the way you’ve characterized the list. There is a lot written about leadership, and so much of it is confusing and complex. You’ve boiled it down simply and well.

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