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Are you a Great Leader?

“Leadership comes in small acts as well as bold strokes.”
– Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard

When facilitating leadership development courses, I routinely ask participants to identify characteristics of great leaders and managers in their companies. Here two examples generated by recent groups:

Most of the lists I see are very similar to these, capturing a “laundry list” of admirable qualities. As I think about what people describe as great leadership, I ask myself some questions:

  • Does it take a very special, even exceptional, type of person to be a great leader or is this ability within the reach of anyone?
  • How can leaders be sure they are demonstrating these characteristics of great leadership?
  • Do leaders have to excel in all these areas to qualify as a great leader? Is that even possible?

Anyone can learn to lead

Some people believe that exceptional leaders are born, not made. However, research suggests that this is not the case. While some people may take more naturally to the role of leader, most people can develop and improve leadership capability. Studies on emotional intelligence (EQ) conclude that the most effective leaders are not necessarily the smartest in terms of their IQ, but that they do demonstrate high levels of emotional self-awareness and self-regulation, as well as the ability to read and interact effectively with others. Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence – “people smarts” – can be developed throughout our lives.

Many of the attributes of great leaders are not merely skills that people employ but are values that people live. In other words, it is not what you do that makes you an effective leader as much as who you are as a person. It is when you live out values such as honesty, caring, humility, and caring that your employees experience great leadership.

Demonstrating great leadership

We tend to judge ourselves by our intent; others judge us by our impact. And often there is a disconnect between what we intend and how others experience us. Part of this disconnect is that others cannot know our intent directly; they infer or “guess at” our motives. Similarly, we make assumptions about our impact without knowing exactly how we come across to others. We think we are demonstrating great leadership because we intend to do so and because we try to behave in ways captured on the lists above. But what if we are missing the mark?

“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”
– Warren Bennis

Great leadership requires managing the disconnect between intent and impact. This is best accomplished by, first, clarifying your intent so that people understand your leadership approach and, second, by checking on how you come across so that you are aware of your impact. You may assume that because your intent is positive, so is your impact. Conversely, if others experience your impact as negative they may come to believe your intent is also negative. To demonstrate great leadership, leaders must check to ensure that intent and impact are aligned.

Leaders do not have to be good at everything

Compelling research from Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman (“The Extraordinary Leader”) shows that extraordinary leaders (those rated in the top ten percentile) are not necessarily great in all leadership competencies. Instead, they are exceptional at a small number of characteristics. This finding is very encouraging because it suggests that by focusing on a few attributes – and demonstrating these in an exceptional manner – a person can become an outstanding leader.

Author John Maxwell defines leadership as influence. Great leaders do not rely solely on their position or formal authority. They demonstrate a higher level of “lead by example” leadership that goes beyond what they do to who they are and how they connect with others to bring out the best in them. 

Dee Oviatt is Senior Training Consultant at ATW Training Solutions. Dee can be reached at or by calling 515.727.0731.


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