The outstanding leaders of history give witness to the fact that even the highest standards of understanding and discipline will still lead to ultimate failure if they are not built upon a strong character. Effective leaders have accomplished their own goals; great leaders have changed history, and though they may have passed from this earth long ago their leadership still shapes the world. The following are the characteristics of leadership:
Having a Vision
This is the fundamental qualification for leadership. By definition, you are not a leader unless someone is following you. Only a fool will follow those who do not know where they are going.
Not only must a leader have goals but the goals must be specific. The more clearly defined they are the easier it will be for others to follow. Having a goal that is too general may be worse than not having one at all. General goals are seldom attained and lead only to frustration. Those who “want to get rich,” or “go into business for themselves one day,” seldom do, and if they do, rarely succeed.
Your goals should be noble. Not only should you be specific in your direction, but you need to be just as specific about why you are going there. Seeking higher purposes will result in personal inspiration as well as the inspiration of others. Great leaders have the ability to make other leaders followers. The quality of those who follow you will directly reflect the quality of your accomplishment. To make other leaders followers requires a greater depth of character, commitment and vision.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great leader. He shared his dream with such conviction that it became the dream of millions of others. During his meetings with other civil rights leaders he would sit patiently and intently listening to everything which was said. He was genuinely concerned with what others believed and considered it important. This in turn made them more inclined to listen to him.
Because he was always so intently listening he would invariably be asked to share his thoughts. His words would then come with such profound understanding, clarity of purpose and confidence in the direction he was going, there was little left to be said when he finished. Great leaders are usually more inclined to listen than to speak. Therefore, when they do speak it is with greater substance.
Great leaders have seldom taken the mantle of leadership for its own sake. True leadership is born out of vision and purpose that is established firmly on the bedrock of conviction and discipline. Leadership is a means and not the end in itself.
The Ability to Form a Plan
This is the characteristic which separates the achievers from the dreamers. An ancient proverb declares, “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.” Even if we have the most noble and appropriate goals , our chances of accomplishing them are remote without proper planning. Planning is both an art and a discipline. Even the greatest artist has to develop his skills; so must the leader develop his ability to assimilate and organize facts concerning the realities being dealt with. Then the facts have to produce insights that will lead to advantage and success.
The best place to start making a plan is to state the goals or objectives. Then state the first step and succeeding ones to the conclusion. Important steps to include in the plan may be priorities, actions required, timing, personnel, other required resources, ways to measure progress toward the goal, etc.
After you have finished your plan you may want to play the deadly enemy game. If you were the enemy of your plan what would you do to stop it? This will help you to see potential weaknesses or serious problems which are not apparent.
The Will to Implement the Plan
“Knowledge is power” according to the proverb. This is true when it is possessed by a wise and decisive leader. Wisdom is the Ability to apply knowledge correctly. Courage is the Will to apply it. Without wisdom and courage, increased knowledge will only inflict us with “the paralysis of analysis.”
Planning and preparation must lead to action. It is quite unlikely that one will ever feel, or be, totally prepared and confident when the action begins. If we wait for complete confidence we will never accomplish anything. Often circumstances come upon us suddenly which require action when we feel totally unprepared. It always seems in these situations that once we begin to take action when we feel totally unprepared.
It always seems in these situations that once we begin to take action to the best of our ability, confidence and wisdom then come. A leader must be action orientated and not just a whiz at theory and planning. The ability to plan is essential for true success, but it must be united with action.
A leader, like the captain of a ship, needs to know where he is going and how to get there before he leaves port. We must also be able to plan while on the journey after the storms, mechanical failures and other surprises require a modification of the plan. It is important to be able to stay on course, but it is just as important to be able to get back on the course, or plot a new one, once a forced change has come.
Keeping Priorities in Order
Many have their leadership abilities sapped by majoring on minors. A popular saying in business today is “count the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” This is probably true because if we are the C.E.O. and we are taking our time to count the pennies, we won’t have any dollars to worry about! Get someone else to count the pennies! The leader must major on the majors.
If we do not take control of our own time, that which represents 10% of our enterprise will demand 90% of our attention. In many cases this is the cause of burnout. If we are in leadership we must learn to delegate the details and give our attention to leading and planning. This is hard for leaders because by nature they are doers and are inclined to become involved – but it must be done if we are to fulfill our potential.
Learning to prioritize your duties can actually multiply your productivity. A simple classification system can be helpful. Keep a current list of your Things To Do. If under your classification system “1” is your highest priority, do not work on the “2’s” until the “1’s” are finished, and so forth down the line. A few more pennies may fall through the cracks, but you’ll be amazed at how many more dollars come in!
This is the ability to stay on course until the goal is accomplished. To achieve this, the goal will have to have more power in your life than the multitude of external pressures which will try to knock you off course. The ability to do this will depend a great deal upon how well you have prepared for the journey to accomplishment, with its conflicts and its storms.
As an aircraft pilot, several times I have been caught in storms so rough I could not read my charts. I would have been in serious trouble had I not taken the time to prepare for the flight. During those storms I was thankful I had not taken any shortcuts in my training, and that I was conscientious enough to study my flight path before I took off.
In most of these incidents my pulse hardly even quickened because I was prepared and knew what to do. A lack of preparedness can result in panic which is potentially deadlier than the emergency. Every enterprise will have emergencies. Our preparation during these times of relative calm will have much to do with our performance during the crisis.
Peace of mind is one of the most valuable assets of a leader. Worry clouds our judgment and saps more energy than much physical exertion; stress is the worst enemy of clear thinking and planning. Besides preparation for the course, there are other factors which will help us keep our peace of mind.
One cannot have peace of mind without having a sound mind. The primary basis for having a sound mind is understanding the reason for our life. It has for a time been fashionable among the “intelligentsia” to believe that there was no Creator. However, this mentality is rapidly changing.
Obviously there is a great deal of dispute over Who the Creator is, as well as what His intentions are with men, but that too was obviously a part of His plan. This is not an excuse for the honest man, but a reason for increased resolve in his seeking. It seems that our Creator intended to only be found by those who esteemed and loved truth more than mere human approval. The greatest peace one can know in this life is to know the One who gave this life.
The Ability to Motivate People
Accomplishment will inevitably require sacrifice and commitment from those you lead, and people must have a reason to make sacrifices and commit themselves. The ability to motivate people lies in the understanding of what motivates them, and of what detracts from their motivation.
There are two basic kinds of motivation: positive and negative. Both work, and work well, depending on the circumstances and the people. There are basically two kinds of leaders: those who sacrifice the people for themselves, and those who sacrifice themselves for the people.
Napolean captured the devotion of his troops by identifying with the common man. Calling himself “the little corporal” he considered the time he spent meeting personally with his troops an important part of his battle plans. Few have continued to be effective leaders after they lost touch with the men in the trenches, on the assembly line, or in the pew. Any leader that loses touch with or ceases to care for his people, can probably be replaced by a good computer.
There are many forces at work which discourage the pursuit of leadership. Anyone who takes initiative become the target of a destructive criticism from lesser souls; such as criticism designed to pull everyone else down to their level. Much of the media has become the embodiment of the “crab spirit” in humanity. Crabs can be kept in containers from which they could easily escape, but if one starts to rise above his fellows to get out they will pull him back down.
With just a little cooperation they could all escape but the nature of crabs keeps them all in bondage. In the name of journalism or information the media has been used to release some of the worst characteristics in men. The result has been a vacuum of leadership that has historically provided an opportunity for a most undesirable type of leader to step into the void.
Integrity is more than just being honest, it is doing what is right. It is the freedom from corrupting influence or practice. It is practising what you preach. It is doing what your conscience tells you to do even if it leaves you as a committee of one. It is the courage to stand for your convictions. It is always reaching for higher moral standards than may be customary in “the group.” The true leader is always reaching for higher standards. It is also the courage and honesty to admit mistakes and failures, and to accept the blame for them.
Even the greatest leaders make mistakes. The better the leader you are, the more costly and visible your mistakes will be. Recovering from the mistakes is an important test of true leadership ability. Complete recovery will not take place without accepting such mistakes and taking responsibility for them. The greatest leaders learn to turn their failures into opportunities for achievement and victory. In many cases, failures will turn into the best opportunities for victory.
A great leader must possess the confidence and security to accept the truth about himself and the consequences of his actions. The greatest leaders are those who can best deal with failure – because all will fail at one time or another. Those who boast that they have never failed have never really played the game. But failure truly can be a great opportunity for future success, if we learn the lessons it teaches instead of just making excuses. As the saying goes: “He who is good at making excuses is seldom good at anything else.” The greatest victories are those which will overcome previous defeats.
Those who follow you or work for you deserve to know the facts. People usually see far more than the average leader gives them credit for. When we are not straightforward about problems and mistakes it will ultimately result in a deterioration of morale and commitment as they will think that we are either not honest, or unable to see reality. Motivation and loyalty that has depth and staying power is founded upon truth, not hype.
Courage is the quality of mind and heart that makes one resist the temptation to stop or retreat in the face of opposition, danger, or hardship. This implies the summoning of all of one’s powers to reach the goal. Courage is the firmness of spirit and moral backbone which, while appreciating and properly measuring the risks involved, makes one press on until success is accomplished.
Courage is essential to leadership but it must be tempered with vision and strategy, always keeping our ultimate goal in the forefront so that we are not defeated by our secondary successes. George Washington is a study in how to balance courage with the keeping of our vision on the ultimate goal. Many times ambitious men rose up to seek his position as Commander-in Chief of the Continental Army.
Often he was tempted to defend himself and attack the integrity of those lesser men. He resisted that temptation knowing that such pettiness could undo the unity of the thirteen states, which would result in their defeat by the British. It took more courage for Washington to stay above the political infighting than it did to get into it.
Loyalty is faithfulness to principles, to the plan and to the people. A social chameleon who changes to conform to each new environment or group is void of the basic characteristics that makes a true leader. True leaders are not so easily changed but instead have the strength of character to change their environments, or the mindset of the crowd.
If we are to expect others to be loyal to us then we must set the example. Loyalty will not stoop to gossip or to belittle others in leadership, or those who may be subordinate. The true leader does not rise by making others look smaller. Great leaders set their standards by the highest standards, not by what others may or may not be doing.
Obviously a leader has to be one who seeks and accepts responsibility. Half the victory is often found in just starting the battle. The ones who take initiative will usually be able to keep it, giving them a substantial advantage. It has been said that there are basically three kinds of people in the world: those who watch what is happening, those who talk about making things happen and those who do it.
The sad thing is that most of those in the first two categories have done everything required to be a “doer” except one thing – initiative. Many of the greatest athletes never play in a real game because they never took the first step of trying out for the team. If those who spend their lives dreaming about being great musicians would spend as much time practising as they do dreaming others would be dreaming about being them!
Few of those who are always talking about doing great things ever do anything at all, much less anything great. Every journey begins with just one step; if you do not know how to take it you are not going to go anywhere.
This is the ability to stay with the task all the way to the completion. This is a serious problem with those who have strong leadership ability because leaders find it much more stimulating to start a task than to finish it. As a result they often have numerous unfinished projects lying dormant while they pick up the pursuit of the next interesting venture.
The ability to finish the job is every bit as important as being able to get all of the resources and energy going to start it. This takes discipline. The failure to complete jobs is usually a telltale sign that we are running on emotional energy rather than true, focused vision.
This is the reason why some of the world’s best salesmen remain poor; they can get an eskimo excited about buying snow but somehow never get his signature on the bottom line. These salesmen get a sense of accomplishment out of persuading their prospects to believe them – not in getting their business. We have not succeeded until the job is completed!