What is a good Leader?

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This is a question we are most frequently asked, and rarely have the opportunity to answer thoroughly. Here is what you need to know.

Leader vs. Manager:

(Laila) There is a misconception that “manager” and “leader” can be used interchangeably and that leaders need direct reports. You don’t have to have direct reports to be considered a leader. Being a leader is having the ability to influence without any direct power. From an organizational perspective, it’s a difference of how leaders and managers accomplish their goals.

(Erika) The most important thing to remember is that a “manager” has explicit positional power from the organization, whereas a leader’s power and authority comes from the people they’re interacting with, whether they have explicit authority from the organization or not. A “leader” can be anywhere and in any position. This is why it’s frustrating to be a “leader” without the power to make changes, as well as a “manager” without the power to get people on board.  Ideally, you want both.

  • Leader Responsibilities:

(Laila) The desire to be a leader is confused with the desire for power.  Leadership is used as a euphemism for “I want more money” or “ I want a better title”, or some other representation of power.  With any position of Leadership comes responsibility, that’s unavoidable. Ask yourself, what is your definition of leadership, and what part of that responsibility are you avoiding?

(Erika) When my clients say they have a problem with being a leader, it’s often a reaction to having unspecified responsibility with unspecified expectations.  Those who find themselves being thought of as a “leader” can feel the pressure. We’ve been conditioned to have unrealistic expectations for leaders, that they are an elite few with magical powers.  These perceived expectations can be daunting, especially for someone who is aware of their flaws.

  • Mentor/Coach/Manager:  

(Laila)

Mentor: A person who has experience in a certain area that you can learn from but also someone who wants to teach you in an informal way. This is someone I would say you turn to for guidance, not something formal.

Coach: Not to be confused with therapist. Unbiased professional who helps you with  navigate a current problem/situation/challenge. An accountability partner, an individual who can provide you with a set of tools to help you.

Manager:  A person of authority within an organization. This person is responsible for setting department goals/objectives and making sure they are fulfilled.

(Erika)

Mentor: Someone with specific experience, who can teach you because they’ve been in that position before.

Coach: Someone with a process that can help you find answers for yourself and give you the tools to handle similar challenges in the future.  

Manager: Someone who has power and authority from an organization.  Often has experience and processes to achieve the team’s goals.

Leaders: Born vs. Made

(Laila) Both. There are some people who seem to be natural born leaders, who early in their childhood, demonstrate certain characteristics that we think of as good leadership. For others a certain situation, mission, purpose, brings out their inner leader. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” - Winston Churchill

But this is a stupid question, and the answer doesn’t matter.

(Erika) This IS a stupid question and the answer DOESN’T matter.  But, both. Your unique personality informs your leadership style. The goal is to find a situation where you can leverage the power of that style in order to engage in leadership. Leadership is situational, so if you’re not engaging in leadership, you probably haven’t found the right situation for your leadership style.  

  • Characteristics of a Good Leader:

(Laila) There is not a list of characteristics that make a good leader. It’s about being authentic. Some of the greatest leaders I've worked with were aware of their styles, knew what worked, but were also aware of their audience and adjust accordingly when appropriate without being dishonest to their own authenticity.  Look around you, what traits do you see in other leaders that speak to you?

(Erika)  So many people rely on the examples of others to inform their leadership style.  There’s nothing wrong with appreciating those we admire, but I caution people against emulating others too closely, or paying too much attention to leadership books.  While you can use examples to inform your style, those people are different from you, and those authors don’t know you. Look at what works for you and the people around you.  What motivates you? What keeps your team engaged? What characteristics define you, and how can you use them to be successful?

  • Good Leader vs. Good Person:

(Laila) -  “I am a good person, why am I not seen as a good leader.”  We can’t define leadership as achieving only positive outcomes. Leadership is not good or bad. It either is or isn’t. Too many times we try to make good people into leaders, when they don’t have the skill, ability, or interest to lead.

(Erika)  People are complex and imperfect, and we all need the space to be complex and imperfect.  One of the biggest challenges to leadership today is how much we know about individuals that we idolize.  If you expect a good leader to also be a good person, you’ll be disappointed, and probably miss out on a lot of people who can make a difference.  

  • Leader vs. Leadership:

(Laila) Leadership is about creating a connection, building relationships, and establishing trust with followers.  There is no leadership without followership. The goal is to come together to achieve a common purpose.

(Erika) Leadership is like falling in love.  You can’t plan it, you can’t fake it, and you need the right people.  Understand what you want and need. Listen to the people around you when they tell you what they want and need.  Don’t waste your energy trying to lead without that synergy. When the time is right and you meet the right people, you’ll fall in leadership too.  


Two talented development professionals from different backgrounds, simplifying complicated questions.

Laila Kahkeshani has 15 years of human resource, talent, and organizational development experience and a masters degree in education and human development, with a concentration in Organizational Leadership and Learning. She owns Irenic. Her goal is to simplify the way organizations approach human capital.

Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate in human and organizational learning with a focus on leadership, and 10 years of coaching, talent development, and organizational systems experience.  She owns Ascendry. Her goal is to amplify individual expertise.