There is no one size fits all set of leadership traits that make for great leaders. So stop looking! You cannot create cookie cut leaders based on some template of traits that leaders should or should not possess. When reading and studying all that is written on leadership it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is a right and wrong way to lead, that their is a right and wrong set of traits for leaders.
Too much emphasis is placed on heroic leaders, those special individuals born with a unique set of traits. CEO’s who turn-around large organisations, sport stars who win and political leaders that transform a nations. We look to these leaders and seek to copy their habits and traits in an attempt to achieve similar results. The traits that made a leader great in the past or in a particular situation, will not necessarily make the leader great tomorrow or in different circumstances. What made Jack Welch successful, will not make you successful. Rather, we need to learn from successful leaders and incorporate what we learn into our own unique leadership philosophy.
Every Leader is Unique and Different
Leadership is personal and each leader is different. We are all unique, with our own unique vision, purpose, values and perspective on life. Leadership is unique to each leader, we should not strive to copy a leadership approach, style or a common set of leadership traits. Consider the following list successful leaders:
- Nelson Mandela
- Steve Jobs
- Winston Churchill
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Mahatma Ghandi
- Henry Ford
- Abraham Lincoln
- Warren Buffet
- Bill Gates
- Lou Gerstner
Examining each of the above leaders, it’s clear that each leader’s personality, style, traits and leadership approach is different and unique. However, what is common to these leaders is that they each expressed their own leadership style and philosophy. Their leadership is an extension of who they are, of their experiences, of their purpose and of their unique life story.
“Look at the life story of a visionary leader and it is unlikely you will find much in the way of specific training for leadership. Thus far, most people who have succeeded as visionary leaders seem to have been self-selected and self-made. Bill Gates received no leadership education, nor did Ted Turner, Wayne Huizenga, Frances Hesselbein, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, or any of the others… And apart from an active curiosity, some basic intelligence, and the ability to learn from experience, they seem to have no remarkable genetic endowment predisposing them to leadership success. They are people who figured out for themselves how to dream dreams, enthuse others with their visions, and then make them happen.” – Burt Nanus, Visionary Leadership
Great leaders spend time in reflection, gaining an understanding of their strengths and weakness, they are students of life. They know what they want and why they want it, having invested time in reflecting and developing their leadership vision and philosophy. In this sense, these leaders are self-made, rather than a product of their genetic make-up or their social environments. When we go with the flow or adapt ourselves to the environment, we us eventually lose ourselves.
Leaders are Self Made
“No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, to use yourself completely – all your skills, gifts and energies – in order to make your vision manifest. You must withhold nothing. You, must, in sum, become the person you started out to be, and to enjoy the process of becoming.” – Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader
As leaders need to lead ourselves first, this requires developing a personal leadership philosophy. A leadership approach true to who you are as an individual. By accepting that each leader should be a unique expression of who and what they are, we become free to think deeply about what kind leader we want to become. This requires that we develop a leadership philosophy that supports who we aspire to become and the impact we want to make on the world.
“Leaders have nothing but themselves to work with…. we are our own raw material. Only when we know what we’re made of and what we want to make of it can we begin our lives – and we must do it despite an unwitting conspiracy of people and events against us….. To become a leader, then, you must become yourself, become the maker of your own life….. Know thyself, then, means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be….. Until you make your life your own, you’re walking around in borrowed clothes.” – Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader
Leadership is intensely personal. All great leaders are self made. They have all been makers of their own life. A life that is unique, one that expressed their own unique vision, purpose and values. One that is authentically you.
“To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” – E.E. Cummings, Poet
We should seek to apply leadership practices that are complementary with who we are and that is aligned with your leadership philosophy. Too many leadership programs try to reduce leadership to a formula, do these 10 things and you will have excellent results. This is to over-simply what is means to leader. Leadership requires judgement, judgement is required to know what leadership practice to apply, in what way, to what situation.
Adapted from a Photo by mak1e
It’s important then that as a leader you take time to develop your personal vision, purpose and more importantly your personal leadership philosophy.