Characteristics of a Good Leader and The Leadership Paradox


Picture someone you think of as a great leader. It could be someone you work with. It could be someone you’ve read about or seen on TV. What are the qualities that make him or her a great leader? What comes to mind? Courage? Vision? Wisdom? Experience? What sets them apart?

Admit it, the question is difficult to answer. More difficult than it should be. One reason is that leadership is a highly complex activity, so complex that we have difficulty comprehending it. Our minds are hard-wired to think linearly. A before B, then comes C. That’s easy to grasp. But as the writer Peter Senge points out, our minds are not well-suited to grasping dynamic complexity. And if anything embodies dynamic complexity, it’s the process of leading.

A second reason is that we assume a good leader will always make good decisions. We go about our daily lives, catching snippets of reality shows and news headlines (“Another CEO was  fired today”) and homespun wisdom (“All we need is someone with a grain of sense to lead this country.”) We expect our leaders to be perfect.  We forget that they are human.

A third reason is more humbling. Psychologists have demonstrated through experiment that human beings are rather sheepish in the way we follow our leaders. If Person A is our leader, we don’t ask challenge his decisions.  Instead, we do what A says, trusting him to do a good job. We’re hardwired for this kind of blind obedience because it conferred an evolutionary advantage on early human beings. When told to attack a woolly mammoth, people went along and got the job done no questions asked (even if a few lost their lives in the process!). Why? Because killing a woolly mammoth was good for the tribe.

So what if A proves not to be a very good leader? The evidence suggests that we wait too long before we do anything. The majority of humans still faithfully follow until the evidence of incompetence is overwhelming. By then, the damage has been done.

Given all these reasons why we can’t distinguish a good leader from a so-so one, how can we ever get it right? What can save us from being perpetually deceived? What is the way out of this leadership paradox? The answer is that we all need to agree on what good leaders actually do. We need a clear roadmap – one that’s simple enough to understand, yet complex enough to capture all of leadership’s dimensions. If we agree on such a roadmap, then we can exercise much more discretion and intelligence in our choice of leaders. My new book (due out next year) aims to provide that roadmap. I’ll be previewing it in future posts to this blog.

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