Leadership: What's it all about?

By Dr. Larry Pfaff

Obviously leadership is a major topic of interest to the general public. Just go to the local bookstore and each month you will find dozens of new books on leadership.

Out of curiosity, I recently asked a number of my friends a simple question: What is leadership? The following is a sampling of the answers I received:

  • Leadership is something more than management
  • A leader is a person who has followers
  • I am not sure exactly what leadership is, but it is not management
  • Leadership is having a clear vision for the organization
  • Leadership means being a catalyst for change
  • Leadership is the ability to get outstanding results from people
  • Leadership is being an innovator

Although many of these answers sounded catchy, they all struck me as being somewhat vague. How does someone act as a "catalyst for change?" Just what does an "innovator" do? What does "more than management" mean?

I looked through numerous books on leadership and found two things. The authors either defined leadership in vague, ill-defined terms (much like my friends) or they gave a list of skills that are important to being a leader. The list was fairly consistent across authors and included such skills as goal setting, planning, motivating employees, developing trust, delegating, rewarding, teambuilding, decisiveness, etc.

Then I began to examine my own work with leaders. Over the last 20 years I have worked with hundreds of leaders as a coach and advisor. What did the best of those leaders all have in common? I find there is a pattern among the best of the leaders I have worked with. Granted, they all have a basic set of management skills like goal setting, planning, coaching, teambuilding, communication, recognition, decisiveness, and giving feedback. But the very best among them have more than that. In my experience, the best leaders have three qualities that separate them from all others.

First, the best leaders spend a great deal of time listening to their people. They not only listen to their people, but they hear what their people are saying. They listen to learn about their organization and the people in it. They listen and observe to learn what motivates and discourages their people. They listen to learn new ideas and procedures. They know that listening is their best source of information.

Second, the best leaders know how their people are reacting to them as a leader. They know, almost instinctively, when their people are reacting negatively to what they are doing as a leader. When they get a negative reaction, they know how to quickly adjust what they are doing. When they get a positive reaction from their people, they know how to do more of the same. They never take a "one size fits all" approach to leading.

Finally, the best leaders are highly introspective people. They understand themselves at a very personal level. They are psychologically balanced individuals. They know what their motivators are. Their self-understanding helps them to understand and relate to employees more effectively. They know how to be close to their work and their employees without taking everything that happens at work personally.

In effect, the best leaders are well-balanced individuals who understand themselves and the people around them. They use this understanding to change their own actions to get results for the organization and the people in it. And they do it in a positive and upbeat way.

Please send any comments, questions or suggestions to Dr. Pfaff at [email protected].

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