What makes a leader?

I was excited when a friend of mine went for promotion recently. He was diffident about it, but I watched him light up when he talked about things he wanted to achieve, and the possibilities he saw in his organization, and I knew he’d be amazing. I’ve worked with him before in leadership positions, and I’ve seen him interact with people on a daily basis. He has that rare gift of giving you his whole attention and making you feel important. Everyone knows him, everyone likes and respects him. And yet I know that’s a good start, but it’s not enough to make someone a great leader. So what is it that makes me absolutely certain he’ll be great?

Not long ago I was lucky enough to hear Bob Brown speak, and you can’t listen to Bob for so much as 60 seconds without being struck by his passion, his optimism, and his drive. The central tenet of his talk was that optimism is a driving force. If you let pessimism knock you out, there is no way forward. It takes optimism to drive change. You have to believe that change is possible, and that you can make it happen.

Bob is an intriguing character. It’s enthralling to hear him talk, but he is not one of the world’s great orators. His speeches seem unplanned. He digresses from his digressions recursively, until you are so many levels deep you can’t remember where it all began (yet you are fascinated all the way through). He is not king of the media friendly three word slogan (“Axe the tax!” “Stop the boats!” “Harass the Homeless!” “Revile the Refugees!” “Persecute the poor!”), or master of the newsworthy soundbite. And yet he is a great leader, with talented and passionate people rallying around him in their thousands. Why should that be?

I believe it’s his passion that makes Bob Brown a leader. Bob sees what needs doing and he goes for it. He is dedicated, driven, committed, and utterly honourable. He leads from the front, always first to put himself and his principles on the line. Bob became a leader, not for power or control, but for change. He wanted things to change, so he stood up, grabbed them by the throat, and damned well made them change.

My friend, who is now on the management fast track, is the same. I don’t think he sees himself as a leader. He’s not interested in power, or making a big noise about his achievements (which are many). But he has a vision for how the world should be, and he wants to make it happen. And he will, too.

I am beginning to see that the best leaders have no particular interest in leading. They want to change things, to fix them. They accept leadership as a troublesome necessity for making that happen, but they are not interested in power for its own sake.

“Those who most want to rule should under no circumstances be allowed to.” Douglas Adams.

Leadership in politics and in business is all too often painted as being all about power and ambition. But that’s not leadership. That’s naked self-interest. Leadership is about a vision for the future. It’s about a drive to effect positive change, and to leave the world better than you found it. As Bob said, there is one question we should be asking that overrides all others:

“Will people 100 years from now thank us for what we are doing? If you can’t say yes to that, you ought not be doing it.”

 That’s leadership.

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2 thoughts on “What makes a leader?

  1. Joe

    “He has that rare gift of giving you his whole attention and making you feel important.”

    Which are different (though complimentary) skills. Personally I’m very good at giving people my whole attention, and absolutely lousy at making people feel important. I don’t think I have any friend relative or colleague who thinks I think they’re as important as I think they are. (Got that?) (Though I admit I’ve had quite a few colleagues who think *themselves* more important than I think they are :p )

  2. lindamciver

    Quite true – although I don’t think you can make someone feel important *without* giving them your whole attention. :)

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