Understanding Great Leadership – Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Understanding Great Leadership

Have you ever wondered what a leader actually is? Do you thoroughly understand the attributes of a leader? Do you know what makes one leader great and another poor. Do you know from where a leader derives their authority? What are the mistakes of leadership?

If you have leadership aspirations you must be able to answer these questions so you don’t fall for some very common traps. This blog is the first in brief investigation of great leadership. Understanding great leadership will affect your decisions, your strategies and intentions. Understanding great leadership will affect the way you influence within your organisation. Failing to understand great leadership will limit your influence and may even stop you from succeeding altogether.

In these articles I am going to strip back the questions of leadership and authority to first principles. Once you understand the fundamentals of leadership and authority you will find the answers to most if not all the questions you’ve ever had on the topic.


How do you define leadership? Take a moment to think and then write down your answer. As you consider this question you’ll soon come to realise it’s more complicated than it seems at first.

If you consider the question thoroughly enough you’ll likely come up with a bewildering number of derivative questions. Like do the attributes of great leadership change with the circumstances? Do the available resources change the nature of great leadership? What is the fundamental intention of leadership? Is a leader the strongest person or the smartest or most capable? Should leaders ever follow? If so what is leadership in any given situation? Can committees lead? Where does the authority to lead come from? Can a person lead without authority? See what I mean? What is leadership is not a simple question. If you had to run a class that taught great leadership what would you put in it

I aim to cut through the confusion and so you can understand leadership in a way that is both effective, accessible and highly adaptable. If you truly grasp what you’ll learn in this series you will walk away with a framework of understanding that will help you navigate any leadership situation you find yourself in, effectively and with less stress and anxiety than you might have thought possible.

First we are going to look at some common understandings of leadership and examine their strengths and weaknesses.

Leadership, Ideas, Opinions, Facts and Fiction

When asked what leadership is many business professionals express ideas of leadership they have derived from popular media, political discourse, training courses and of course their own ideas. Repeating cliches about leadership will not teach you how to understand what leadership is. If you don’t understand what leadership actually is you’re likely to fall for the many traps or simply be ineffective.

Often the ideas I hear in my programs about leadership include hints of some very old archetypes. Here are some common examples. A leader is a strong man or woman. A leader is the boss who has the final say. A leader is the pathfinder who blazes a trail for others to follow. Some describe leaders as nothing but a figurehead the puppet of the faceless men and women who really run the show.

I’ve heard people describe leaders in monarchistic or dictatorial terms assigning attributes to leaders that would best describe a King/Queen/Emperor/ Dictator/ Super Boss and executioner. The person in which all powers and authority are invested. If the concept of absolute power invested one person or an all powerful committee doesn’t scare you then you’re not a student of history.

I heard a definition of leadership in a program which was worrying at the time and still is today, especially given the current state of the world, “A leader is the guy or gal with the biggest gun, their hand on the trigger and the willingness to use it.” In other words leadership is simply capability and willingness to coerce cooperation through the application of threat.

Here’s a list of attributes for great leaders compiled by Tanya Prive, on Forbes.com

  1. Honesty
  2. Ability to Delegate
  3. Communication
  4. Sense of Humour
  5. Confidence
  6. Commitment
  7. Positive Attitude
  8. Creativity
  9. Intuition
  10. Ability to Inspire

The reason these common ideas about leadership have stood the test of time is because there are elements of truth and value in them. However on their own none of them are sufficient to allow you to lead effectively in every situation you are likely to find yourself in, in the modern corporate world. Corporations are vastly more dynamic than they were even 10 years ago. You can’t rely on individuals to blindly follow without question. Authority doesn’t reside only in the few elite any more. Corporations must get the best out of their people if they are to compete both in the short and long term. An element of coaching, nurturing and developing talent, tempered by the occasional growl, needs to be a part of your leadership paradigm. Not the other way around, that is a bunch of growling tempered by the occasional bit of coaching, nurturing and developing of talent.

The problem with many of these views is they are typically too rigid, or too vague, too role defined, or they will render you incapable of morphing and adapting to the constantly changing corporate environment. Or they are simply based on romantic ideals of the noble leader. Sometime a leader must get their director out and bark at people. Often leadership requires you to be scrappy and significantly messy.

Most of them are unable to satisfy the requirements of multiple and changing situations and will limit your capability to lead because they in and of themselves are self limiting concepts. They will even prevent you from adapting to change. They don’t reflect a deep understanding of leadership.

Lets have a look at some of the more common leadership definitions. We’ll look at their strengths and limitations. After we’ve had a look at the more common leadership ideas I am going to introduce you to a definition of leadership that is highly adaptable and highly effective.

The King, Queen, Emperor, Dictator or Super Boss?

Yes being the King/Queen, Emperor/Empress/ Dictator or Super Boss with complete authority and the power to execute is great when the ruled want to be ruled or if they have no choice. I am sure you would have a great time with all that power, while it lasts. You might even get really good stuff done, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. In fact throughout history many ultimate authority leaders have done good things. Singapore is a notable example.

Having ultimate power isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s what you do with all that power. Would you become self serving or serve the people you lead. Would you become capricious making decisions based on your whims. Would you become over confident in your ability to lead because you can execute anyone who challenges you? Hmmm, I wonder what you might do with all that power.

If we lined up all the Ultimate Leaders and identified the ones that achieved good things There would be quite a few. Henry the Eighth brought us the Church of England and Divorce, but he also had a penchant for slaughtering entire groups who opposed him. The Roman emperors brought us plumbing and aqueducts as well as entrenched totalitarian rule and nepotism. On balance they do more good than bad? One must wonder. What’s more there would be many more examples of leaders in this line up who didn’t realise the full potential of their power. Who didn’t get the best out of their people. Probably the majority would exemplify that age old adage, “Ultimate power corrupts, ultimately”.

The Problems of Monarchistic Rule Continue

What happens when the ruled no longer want to be ruled? What happens when they get resentful because they are being treated like subjects, when their innate desires to aspire, grow and rise in life in career are being thwarted by your very presence and absolute power? Such is the rumblings of rebellion. The mood of the governed matters.

For the Super Boss/ Emperor/Empress type who fails to correctly measure the level of resentment, discontent, and distress in their subjects, Time is limited. Ask Louie the XVI and Marie Antoinette, Saddam Hussein, Pinoche, Nero and a bunch of big names. In fact throw a rock into the lineage of absolute monarchs and you will probably hit someone who came to an early end. You could even ask a bunch of Partners, CEO’s and senior executives I’ve come across over the years what happens. Besides no single person is capable of managing all that power on their own? Well that’s just my opinion. Which leads us to the fact that absolute power isn’t the real problem. How you use absolute power is.

The list of problems associated with monarchistic, absolute, leadership doesn’t stop here. Super Bosses tend not to be particularly adaptable. They tend to simply use coercive power to get what they want. To push people into action. They tend to stifle unrest and discontent with threats and intimidation. They tend to use fear as a tool for motivating the masses.

If you have been watching global conflicts unfold around our world you should start to see that coercive power is a blunt tool, it tends to create more problems than it fixes. If for no other reason than the majority of us people hate bullies and hate being bullied. As soon as our anger frustration and resentment exceeds our fear of being bullied / losing their jobs and livelihood a very large number of us “will come a gunning” because we have nothing to lose.

How does the monarchistic concept of leadership allow you to adapt when the circumstances change? Do you simply try to coerce your followers into being ruled again? For example what’s the good of being the King or Queen in a situation of anarchy or rebellion? In this situation you’d be better off fleeing to another country or organisation depending on which is the most suitable to your need for survival.

In more corporate terms it’s unlikely you’ll find your people banging down your door with torche and sickle baying for your blood. It’s more likely you will will see them leaving, or worse they stay and will not perform at their best. They may even sabotage your aspirations through inaction. Or you may even cause a greater problem. You may destroy their initiative and drive because there’s no point in aspiring. This is really just a brief examination of the problems with leaders who think of themselves as absolute monarchs.

Now having all that power isn’t all bad. Centralised forms of governance can get a lot done. One has to way up the costs and whether the decisions serve the greatest benefits or a simply driven by self interest.

Having power isn’t the problem it’s how you use it that matters. As we go through this examination you will find yourself asking what is the appropriate use of power and how do I decide when and how to use it? We will be answering these questions.

What Coming Up

In the next couple of articles we are going to look at some of the other definitions of leaderships that commonly pop up in discussions on the topic. We are going to show you some of their limitations. It is wise for you to understand the limitations of your beliefs around leadership if you are going to be the kind of leader who is effective.

In later posts we are going to look at and answer the questions, What is a definition of leadership that allows you to be effective as well as adaptable. We will also look at and answer the questions; where does a leader derive their authority to lead from? This will lay the foundations for understanding what great leadership is.

Until then just think about it?



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