Leadership - "truly an amazing concept"

The concept of leadership is truly an amazing concept. It has power beyond all our imaginations.
Dan, a friend of mine who was president of a group I'm in at Central Michigan University, wrote that to me after a leadership conference last year. That was around the time I really started becoming enthusiastic about leadership, and Dan was a big reason why. I signed a minor in leadership last spring, bought a couple of books about leadership, and set some high goals for myself in terms of what kind of leader I want to be.

So why am I - like many others - so enthusiastic about leadership? Well, there are plenty of reasons. For one, many people probably see a personal benefit. It looks good on our resume to have been president, coordinator, manager, director, etc., of something. And of course, those in leadership roles are more well-known than others, so there may be (for some) a popularity factor.

But that doesn't explain it well enough. Many of you might be insulted if I told you that you only care about leadership for your own personal gain.

So why the enthusiasm for leadership? My best hypothesis is: It is through leadership that we can have the greatest impact on our society. Leaving our mark and improving the quality of human life in our community and on this planet - now that's an awesome dream to behold!

Who is a leader?
So then who, exactly, is a leader? How do we determine who a leader and who is not? Is the leader the one who holds the title - president, chair, manager, CEO, captain, director? Is it someone who has followers? Is it the person who works hardest? Is it the smartest person in the room? In many instances, yes, these people happen to be the top leaders.

If you ask me, you are a leader if you are a Homo sapien. Homo sapien is the Latin scientific name for a human being. Yes, folks: EVERYONE is a leader! Notice that I didn't just say that everyone can be a leader, which many would argue. Rather, everyone already IS a leader - just by virtue of being a human!

Here's why I say that. Though we may not always realize it, almost everything we do has an impact (albeit usually small) on our communities, our environment, and maybe our entire world. We give our time, talent, and treasure to certain people, groups, or businesses, thereby helping them to become more profitable or do their jobs more smoothly. We have a certain carbon footprint, which indicates how much of the Earth's precious resources we are using for our own selves. We answer questions people ask of us, leaving them better informed. We anger people by taking the last cookie from the cookie jar (oh come on, who hasn't? :-) ). We turn off lights and water faucets, saving energy and a little money. We influence our friends' music tastes by recommending albums. And on, and on, and on!

So regardless of whatever positions we have (or don't have), we are leaders by our human nature. The trick, then, is to be a great and effective leader. An effective leader is one whose actions spur a lot more change than most of the other 6.7 billion leaders do (so you could say effective leaders are more powerful). But a great leader is one whose actions are worthy of emulating. The great leaders are the ones thanks to whom we are better off.

What makes a great leader?
I'm not going to focus much on how you can be an effective leader. Being effective in one leadership role often isn't the same as being effective in another (i.e. an effective accounts manager doesn't inherently make an effective university president). Instead, over the next few days I will focus on being a great leader.

Everyone has an idea of what it takes to be a great leader. I think Norman Schwarzkopf summed it up best:
To lead in the twenty-first century…you will be required to have both Character and Competence.
I also happened upon this quote from Jim Rohn:
The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.
But what does ScottyUrb have to say? Well, there is no perfect set of attributes common amongst all great leaders. The above quotes by Schwarzkopf and Rohn, as well as The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader by John C. Maxwell, do offer some excellent insights on what kinds of attributes one can find in a top-notch leader. But as for myself, here are just a handful of the most important qualities I attribute to the best of leaders - attributes that I think are often overlooked or maybe should be viewed in a different light:

Great leaders help those who follow them recognize their own self-worth. I happened to be watching Oprah one day when she said something that struck me. To paraphrase her, "Everyone is put on this big, beautiful earth to do something great." You and I have some sort of purpose. What a joy it would be to be able to help someone see what they can do with the limited amount of time they have here.

Great leaders seek to understand the needs of those who follow them. How will people follow your example or do what you ask of them if you don't know where they're coming from? You will want people to understand why you want them to do something, but what if you don't understand their concerns? Many a leader-follower relationship has surely gone sour because the leader and/or follower didn't take the time to understand the other. That's why communication is always essential between leaders and followers.

Great leaders understand that when they lead, they serve. Markos serves the Daily Kos community. Howard Dean serves the Democratic Party. Jennifer Granholm serves the people of Michigan. Hopefully in a few months, Barack Obama will be able to serve the people of this entire country as our President. I'm not saying all of these leaders are or would be great (well, Dr. Dean is :-) ), and other people serve the aforementioned entities besides the people I mentioned (i.e. state lawmakers, campaign staff). But the point is, the best leaders acknowledge that they are to serve the people and organizations they lead before they serve themself.

Great leaders give and receive praise and criticism as appropriate. Let me dissect that a little. You must never tire of praising people to affirm for them that, yes, what they are doing is right. Yet you also have to steer people in the right direction. This will often involve a calm reminder of how to do something right, but of course you can't shy away from calling a spade a spade. When you are criticized - as a leader or otherwise - try to understand why you are being criticized. And when you receive praise, you must do with humility. Be confident, yes, but never rest on your laurels as you can always do better.

Great leaders strive for inclusion. When's the last time you felt alienated from a group? Have you ever felt like the people alienating you were the ones viewed as the top leaders of that group (i.e. a committee chair or team captain)? That has happened to me a couple of times in the last few months. On one occasion, I was treated with little respect while trying to stand up for what I believed was best for the organization. Another time, I was one of just a few people involved in a group who was not invited to a big celebration. When followers don't feel welcome, everyone - leaders as well as followers - will stand to suffer.

Great leaders see themselves as role models. I'll have tons more on this tomorrow or Saturday, but I have seen so many powerful leaders fail at their duties as role models. I once admired Mark McGwire - but is it okay to cheat in sports or in life? Or how about Mark Foley? And don't get me started on the greed, arrogance, and selfishness of certain other politicians, business leaders, entertainers, and athletes right now. Jamie Lynn Spears getting pregnant at 16? The lies we see in campaign ads? Who wants to send young people the message that lying, cheating, underage sex, and breaking the law are good?

I could go on and on about some of the important qualities of good leaders. These, however, are just a few of the ones I feel I need to stress the most. Over the next few days, I will have thoughts on the importance of character and competence in leaders - two topics .

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