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What Great Leaders Have in Common

There is a pretty clear consensus among writers and researchers on Leadership that great leaders do not come in one flavor. Still, there do seem to be important qualities that most have. Importantly, these qualities can be learned and developed. That means that anyone can learn leadership.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding leaders, and found each of them made from a different mold. For example, when I started at P&G, our CEO was John Smale, brilliant but famously introverted. He was succeeded by Ed Artzt, a charming but vicious in-fighter who demanded loyalty and rewarded his people. By contrast, his successor, John Pepper, emphasized team building and broad-based empowerment. Each understood his unique strengths, and each was a great leader.

Despite differences in personalities, studies have found that most leaders exhibit a similar set of qualities or behaviors. Compare what two separate research groups found:

  • George and Sims in True North identify five characteristics:
    • Purpose with passion – a highly motivating sense of mission
    • Values that guide one’s choices and actions
    • Leading from the heart – being tough but compassionate
    • Enduring relationships to keep one from imagining that success is one’s own accomplishment
    • Self discipline, exercised over and over
  • Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge identify five “practices”:
    • Challenging the process
    • Inspiring a shared vision
    • Enabling others to act
    • Modeling the way to achieve the desired goals
    • Encouraging the heart of everyone involved

What is striking to me in these lists is 1) how similar they are, and 2) that each of these characteristics and behaviors can be cultivated. ¬†George and Sims make the point that leadership is a process, not a destination. It’s lifelong learning, a journey without end.

So pick your set of characteristics or practices, then begin to exercise them. It helps to have a mentor or coach to help hold you accountable to yourself. Otherwise, you may find it is too easy to justify backsliding and counterproductive behaviors. Or, consider joining an organizational leadership masters degree program.

I am not convinced that everybody can become a great leader, but I am absolutely convinced that anyone can continuously make progress at becoming a better leader. And if anyone ever tries to tell you that we need fewer chiefs and more Indians, don’t believe it. We all need you to lead better.

Best wishes for a wonderful journey!

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