Being a Leader
by David F. Wilson

Leadership is the process by which a person influences others to accomplish a mission, task, or objective. Although some individuals have the good fortune of possessing an apparently innate ability for leadership, the rest of us must develop our leadership potential through self-study, dedication, education, experience, and hard work. Indeed, effective leadership is so scarce that literally thousands of books, articles, and workshops have been developed on the subject.

Nevertheless, a precise definition of what it means to be a leader remains as elusive as ever. Perhaps a good starting point is to note that the mere fact of wielding power or possessing authority does not make someone a leader. Indeed, many individuals have inspired, influenced, and motivated others without having a formal title or any authority whatsoever. A distinction should also be made between leaders and managers. Leaders are able to inspire others to act freely and willfully in pursuit of common objectives; by contrast, managers or bosses primarily instruct others on how to do a task in an effective manner. Indeed, it is very possible -and quite likely- that great managers make poor leaders and vice versa. Given the current leadership crisis in corporate America, the time is ripe for an exposition on the principal traits that characterize effective leaders.

Each of the letters that comprise the word "leader" represents an important quality shared by those who significantly influence the attitude and behavior of others. Although these six traits are not to be considered exclusive, they do reflect the principal characteristics of those who exercise legitimate influence over individuals.


It might be a truism, but it certainly cannot be denied that true leaders lead; that is, they are at the forefront of their group or organization instead of following behind it. Indeed, leaders choose the destination and select the path that others follow. To draw upon a Biblical parallel, recall how Moses lead the Israelites through the desert toward the Promised Land. As a leader, Moses selected the destination (i.e., the Promised Land) and the path (i.e., through the desert). In fact, this principle is particularly true of those who confidently grasp the mantle of leadership. As Bill Parcells reminds us, "Make it clear from day one that you're in charge. Don't wait to earn your leadership."


Leaders enable others to achieve greatness by serving as facilitators, moderators, and advocates. They remove obstacles that hinder others from obtaining their goals. Indeed, as enablers, leaders often smooth the path so that followers can reach their objectives, whether personal or organizational. Regardless of whether they supply material or moral resources, true leaders achieve their goals by enabling others to achieve theirs. Indeed, Ian Cook advises leaders to take the following approach toward those whom they lead: "Decide whom -not what- you serve in your leadership capacity. Help them succeed in contributing to the organization, help them learn and grow, and see them as your 'customer.'"


Leaders articulate a dynamic and inspiring vision that motivates others to follow them. Those who cannot articulate a guiding principle are not likely to lead others very far. In the words of Gregory Smith, who likens leaders to gladiators of the ancient world, "Call it a purpose, an obsession, a calling: whatever the terminology, good leaders have a defining mission in their life. This mission, above all other traits, separates managers from leaders." It is only by enunciating and formulating a credible, realistic, and achievable mission that leaders are able to convince others to follow them through thick and thin.


Being a leader requires one to examine options and then decide. Although they often discuss issues and delegate responsibilities, true leaders cannot abrogate their ultimate responsibility to make tough decisions, even if unpopular. As the lyrics from a popular song so aptly attest, "Even if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." Great leaders not only make decisions with confidence, but they take calculated risks and are innovative. They realize that adopting a timid, head-in-the-sand posture is fruitless. In fact, decisiveness and the ability to distill complex problems into their core essence are two of the hallmarks of a truly effective leader.


According to Ed Konczal, "Leaders encourage people to learn and grow. They point them in the right direction and then get out of the way." He also argues that "leaders create and sustain a high performance environment and empower people by providing learning opportunities." Encouragement can take a variety of forms, from a simple word of praise, to a pat on the back, to public acclamation. Indeed, true leaders encourage others to:

  • Step out of their customary boundaries and look at issues from a new perspective;

  • Unleash their creativity and accept new challenges;

  • Dissent and critique the status quo and customary ways of doing things;

  • Set high standards and meet them;

  • Embrace change and uncover competing commitments.


True leaders reward, value, and extol the achievements of others. Indeed, Paul Thornton reminds us that effective managers and leaders "reward and recognize people who demonstrate the ability to work independently, make decisions and get the job done." As part of their overall reward system, effective leaders provide feedback so that others can adjust their behavior to achieve desired outcomes. Indeed, it makes little sense to reward someone who meets a goal by simple happenchance. Once again, Thornton is on the mark: "Real confidence is based on achieving results, one success after another. When leaders provide rewards and recognition, it's a validation of people's talents and determination."

As we have seen, the word "leader" stands for someone who leads, enables, articulates, decides, encourages, and rewards. Although these are not the only traits exhibited by successful leaders, they do epitomize those characteristics shared by nearly all those who successfully influence others. Besides applying the general guidelines noted above, those seeking to become effective leaders should ask themselves critical questions as part of an on-going effort to improve their leadership skills. Indeed, those who exercise responsibility for leadership must never fail to critically examine their leadership skills and remedy their deficiencies. One useful tool for accomplishing this goal is the following leadership survey based on the work of T.M. Georges:


1. Do others view me as a leader? Why or why not?

2. What are my strengths as a leader? My weaknesses?

3. Do I give others the correct amount of autonomy and responsibility?

4. How would others describe my leadership style?


1. Do I help others to do their work more effectively?

2. Do I provide the necessary physical and material resources to do the job?

3. Do others view me as a moderator, facilitator, guide, and enabler?

4. Do others look to me for assistance and advice to accomplish their tasks?


1. Have I articulated a coherent, realizable vision that inspires others?

2. Have I set challenging goals for myself and others?

3. Have I done a good job of communicating my vision or mission to others?

4. Is my vision compatible with the corporate culture?


1. Do I consult others before reaching a decision?

2. Do I make decisions in a forthright and timely manner?

3. Do others respect my decision-making ability?

4. Do I delegate decision-making responsibility, or do I try to make all decisions myself?


1. Do I encourage freedom, innovation, and creativity?

2. Do I encourage activities and behaviors that lead to accomplishing stated goals?

3. How do I encourage others? Is my way of encouraging effective?

4. Am I known as someone that encourages thinking and acting "outside the box"?


1. How often do I reward others?

2. What types of rewards do I employ?

3. How do I know that my rewards are something others actually value?

4. Are there certain activities that I reward too often? Too little?

David F. Wilson is a recently minted MBA from California State University - Domínguez Hills and the president of Milenio Professional Services, a business consulting and documentation company in Houston, Texas. David can be reached at .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by David F. Wilson. All rights reserved.

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