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What it Means to be a Good Leader

What is a good leader?

A good leader balances intention, intelligence, vision, power, authority, desire to serve, ability to communicate, inspire and convince, a winning personality, empathy, compassion, resilience, adaptability, integrity/honesty, confidence, humility, passion, commitment, decisiveness, respect for followers, delegation, and more. The good leader is both practical and idealistic.

Wow! It’s a tall order to bring all those traits into play in the right balance.

Leadership Role Models

The array of leaders we have seen over the ages, whether in commerce, government, religion or community presents a mixed bag. There are self proclaimed “Great Leaders” like Kim Jong-un, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Attila, Genghis Khan, and so many more. These have oppressed and led their followers into war and famine. Yet, their skills, passion and power, coupled with the neediness and greed of the people who followed and perhaps still follow their lead gave them the power to influence the world around them.

Also in the array are servant leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. M L King, Nelson Dalai Lama, Mandela, Moses, Christ, Ram, Krishna, among others who, to many, are true heroes, who have led their followers towards peace, freedom and prosperity and have stood firmly in the face of injustice and hatred. These are the positive role models.

Leadership in Projects and Organizations

Leadership occurs locally in our projects, organizations and teams. Some of leaders are perceived as good leaders because they satisfy short term objectives, even though they perpetuate dysfunction in the long term.

Being a great or good leader is more than just getting things done in the short term. Truly great leaders achieve short term objectives while paving a future path that increasingly improves performance and makes life livable for the people working in and around the organization. The leader promotes three dimensions: getting work done, perfecting the process over time and cultivating an atmosphere in which people can thrive.

Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism and author of The Tao Te Ching said
“A leader is best when people barely know that he exists,
not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
worst when they despise him.
Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.
But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done,
his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “
We did this ourselves.”

A good leader talks little, listens much. A leader who honors people is a servant leader, valuing and empowering people, delegating, mentoring, coaching. He or she recognizes people’s value and their needs. Not expecting to be blindly obeyed, she is open to critical feed back, can grow from it and discover optimal solutions. When the leader gives up authority, listens and values people, they will not fear and despise him.

Mandela highlighted the power of open minded collaboration:

“A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger.
You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial and uninformed. “

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Leadership is Complex Skill

An approach that values getting the right things done right with minimal use of authority, collaboratively, with respect for people seems all good. Yet, little if anything is all one thing or another. Everything has its downside – the side that if it is ignored will overcome the good.

What is the downside of the kind of leadership that Lao Tzu and Mandela espouse? Mostly, it is the danger of interpreting their advice simplistically.

Leadership is a complex skill. While some seem to “get it” naturally, it must be learned. The learning begins with early role models and relationships, academics and theories but must ultimately come from experience. Experience teaches that people, projects and organizations are complex, that change is an inevitable and continuous fact of life, as are uncertainty and ambiguity. Adaptability based on open-mindedness is critical. The good leader adapts to the situation at hand.

It is easy for a naive leader to believe that all of the people – his or her subordinates, peers and superiors – are all highly effective, see the big picture, exhibit high-emotional, social and intellectual intelligence and that they will make the right decisions when empowered to do so.

Imagining this, the leader may not manage sufficiently. He or she may not exercise the authority to make binding decisions and institute checks and balances when they are needed, including ones that people dislike. Authority is a powerful tool to be used carefully.

When a project manager is faced with a critical decision recommended by her team that she thinks is sub-optimal, the good leader will assess the decision, question it and the criteria that it was based on. In this way, the staff may be able to see flaws in their solution and come up with a better one. If they do not, it is the leader’s job to make the decision he or she feels is right. That decision may be to accept the staff’s way or insist on his own.

Through questioning and assessment the leader may realize that the staff’s decision was well thought out and is a viable alternative to his/her own. When that happens the wise leader will go with the staff’s decision.

Case Example

For example, a team of B.A.s, programmers and business subject matter experts were ready to implement a process improvement to capture a request for service online at its source to replace a manual form.

New leadership stepped in and stopped the project. The executive, newly appointed to lead the overall organization, saw the change as being a patch to an inefficient business process. Instead of changing the responsibility for handling the request, thereby distributing the work to a much broader group close to the requester, the approach kept in place a small centralized group and their process.

The centralized group was a bottle neck in the process. The online form project sped things up but kept the old process intact. Recognizing the need to address the bottleneck, the leader directed the team to take a step back and examine the overall process.

When in doubt, stopping and stepping back is often the right thing to do. In this case it is the opportunity to assess whether incremental change while seeking more radical change is warranted. However, if the leader simply stops and changes direction without ample and transparent assessment of the alternatives, then there is damage to morale and possibly a shortsighted decision.

Managing Authority

How the leader handles a situation like this is key. He or she can explore the reasons the team decided to take the incremental approach. If a change is mandated from the top, the leader will explain the reasoning behind it. The good leader will pose questions rather than bark orders to lead the team to a more effective solution.

For example “Did you consider a fundamentally different approach to change the process by shifting responsibility to the department heads rather than the central group?” “What are the pros and cons of doing so?”

Questioning in this way can show the leader that the team already considered the more radical change alternative and postponed it in favor of the incremental change for good reason.

The good leader recognizes that her subordinates may not speak up or push back. Their respect for authority and fear may inhibit them, even when the leader requests candid feedback; and especially in the face of one who clearly dislikes candor.

As a leader one must recognize the differences between dealing with peers and superiors and working in hierarchies. Project managers and team leaders have bosses, sponsors and clients. With peers and superiors, the leader is highly motivated to take a collaborative approach. When working with subordinates there is less motivation for collaborative decision making and a need to restrain the use of authority.

Bottom Line

Good leadership is a critical success factor that both enables getting things done and promotes optimal performance with continuous improvement, in a healthy work environment .

The good leader cultivates and balances the many qualities of good leadership by opening mind and heart to learn from and adjust to the needs of the situation.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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