What makes a leader?
Simply put, a leader is someone who leads and guides, focused on influencing and inspiring people for the sake of the group, while a boss is usually the owner of the business, focused on profit, or the person in charge of a department, focused on making work processes more efficient.
Known optimist Simon Sinek once said “leadership is not a rank or a position to be attained. Leadership is a service to be given.”
Going a little (or even a lot) further back in time, according to Aristotle, an effective leader must first be a follower. This is very insightful because if you truly understand what it’s like to be in a group, you will know better than anyone what people expect and what people need, their concerns and hardships, but also what’s expected of them.
So, to be a good leader, it’s important to also be a good follower.
When you ask people to think of a “leader,” many will imagine an executive in a suit and tie, and in a managerial position. But leadership is not about position—anyone can be a leader. Let’s think of the bell hops, desk clerks, valet drivers, room keepers, and servers in a large hotel. These are not the positions at the top of the hierarchy. In fact, they are at the bottom of the pyramid.
But the desk clerk at this hotel may be bubbling with ideas for the better functioning of his work group and he may also have a “knack” for communicating effectively.
He can inspire and influence his colleagues to improve their performance, or to fight for their rights, or whatever they need to get done. If he can do this and his colleagues listen to him and act on it, then he is a leader, and his colleagues are his followers. Leaders usually instill trust, dedication, and loyalty.
Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s all about inspiring and having influence and impact on others.
Simply put, a true leader promotes healthy relationships among group members and between himself and the rest of the group, and leads them as an equal, by example, toward their common goals.
In 1939, psychologist Kurt Lewin identified three core styles of leadership that impact team members differently. His work also showed how leaders get different results from different leading styles. The three core leadership styles he identified were:
- Authoritarian (Autocratic)
- Participative (Democratic)
- Delegative (Laissez-Faire)
However, in a scenario of constant change in all domains, where everything is shaped by technology and innovations as well as disruptions, the days of simple hierarchy and authoritarianism are long gone.
In addition to influencing employees, true leaders also need to be able to influence people outside their businesses to create and distribute value. Leadership has evolved to become more collaborative and people-oriented, and leaders must be more flexible and adaptable than in the past.
Today, there is a much broader scope when we talk about different leadership styles:
- Transformational Leadership: highly encouraging and supporting
- Laissez-Faire Leadership: delegative; the least intrusive form of leadership
- Strategic Leadership: requires vision, competitive awareness, and adaptability
- Coaching Leadership: conscious and nurturing; motivates and supports
- Transactional Leadership: based on communicating expectations, rewarding successes, and punishing failures
- Situational Leadership: according to each situation or team; proactive and acknowledging change
- Visionary Leadership: affiliative leadership; focuses on future and long-term goals
- Democratic Leadership: participative or facilitative; leader’s decisions are made by consulting with the team
- Autocratic Leadership: coercive & authoritarian; can be intimidating and frustrating
- Bureaucratic Leadership: follows the rules; decisions must align with company policy or past practice
What are the traits of a good leader?
Some people are naturals and seem to have been born with leadership qualities, while others have learned along the way, but good leaders are most certainly made not born.
Yes, leadership can be a trait, but a good leader is almost always (also) trained, or self-taught for that matter.
There are tons of leadership training programs out there, addressing topics like:
- Project planning and delegating
- Building trust and respect
- Conflict resolution
- Dealing with change
- Leading innovation
- Coaching to improve performance
But this isn’t the focus of our article. We are set on exploring what makes a good leader and separates a leader from a boss.
Even though we have removed authoritarianism from the definition of leadership, there are still other characteristics commonly associated both with leaders and bosses.
Characteristics like determination, toughness and courage are typically associated with leaders, who must be ready to make all kinds of decisions, even facing backlash and criticism.
But skills like emotional intelligence, encompassing self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills, aren’t any less important.
Emotional intelligence (also known as “EQ”) is a so-called “soft skill” that can have a more inward focus: as they say, know thyself, and you’ll improve your emotional intelligence. But it’s also useful in a group dynamic. It’s also about observing how you react to people and learning to recognizing people’s needs and feelings.
True leaders relate well to other people, understand their impact on others, and know how to control their impulses.
They value relationships and take the time to get to know coworkers, customers, etc. on a more personal level, and they are often perceived as human, approachable, and this doesn’t dimmish their authority because it harnesses respect. But they can feel (and respect) when colleagues, clients or partners prefer to keep their lives private.
Another “soft skill” is effective communication.
How else would true leaders persuade people to follow their vision, to work with them, or convince people of their value?
Of course, communicating effectively isn’t just talking—it’s also about thoughtful and respectful listening. A good leader listens to others without interrupting and isn’t judgmental, respecting where people are coming from even if they don’t see eye to eye. They ask for others’ opinions, they take them into consideration, and people will feel appreciated.
But true leaders don’t just listen or talk. They also act, and they lead by example. They roll up their sleeves and help, while both supporting and uplifting colleagues. And they don’t just expect teammates to take responsibility for their actions. They too hold themselves accountable for their actions—if they make a mistake, they own it.
A good leader tries to uplift others and help them realize their full potential. They invest in people and help them improve skills and grow in experience even if they must walk them through new or harder tasks. This makes others also feel invested in their leader and the organization they represent.
Curiosity is another trait that makes a great leader—because curiosity is the foundation for learning, and learning is what will inform all the other skills.
Hard vs. soft leadership
Hard leadership is a lot less discernible from “bossing.”
While hard leadership focuses on pressure, soft leadership emphasizes persuasion and transformation. While soft leadership emphasizes tactics, hard leadership focuses heavily on the task. Soft leaders are people-centric leaders while hard leaders are self-centered. We can say soft leaders think outside the box, while hard leaders are stuck within the box.
Punishment and love both harness power, and power based on love is a lot more permanent than that based on fear.
Whenever tasks are simple and clear, hard leadership may work, but if processes are a little more complex, they will most likely require the patience, understanding and perseverance of an empathetic soft leader.
For us at Verbarium, the recipe for sound leadership includes a pinch of inspiration, a few spoons of guidance that leaves space for the initiative and creativity of others, two cups of empathy, one cup of flexibility and a whole lot of dedication, sprinkled with mutual respect.
In sum, the “recipe” for great leadership has many nuances and different ingredients, according to different needs, such as:
- and accountability!
Our CEO works with the team—hands on—for the collective purpose, inspiring coworkers to work hard and wisely, and to connect emotionally so they contribute the best they can.
This goes to show, bosses can also be leaders, and this should be a priority for those who want to lead effectively. The first step to becoming a better leader and a better boss, for that matter, is to understand the characteristics that distinguish a leader from a boss.
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