LEADERSHIP / OCT. 14, 2016
version 17, draft 17

What is Leadership and What Makes a Great Leader

leadership disc with attributes

The term “leader” is frequently thrown around and ubiquitous in the corporate world. It is used so heavily that it has become an abstraction, something that encompasses so much that it seems almost impossible to define. It can describe an ideological, military or political leader or someone that helps their group or team achieve goals that promote the common good.

No matter what definition you abide by, the fact is that leadership is a crucial component of a successful career, especially when you mature professionally and move upwards through the ranks of management. It is necessary to achieve goals, motivate and manage the people that you work with, it is multifaceted and complex, but this article will attempt to deconstruct the components and the distinctions between managing people and leading them.

Leadership vs. Management

leadership vs management

The first thing that needs to be touched upon is its distinction with management. Management is a much more concrete set of strategies, skills, structures and organisational abilities necessary to manage a team. A leader, on the other hand, possesses these attributes, plus the intangible skills to make his team go beyond set goals and standards. The intangible skills are:

  • People-centric perspective, instead of focusing exclusively on protocols, standards, and bottom-lines.
  • The ability to motivate, they do not enforce or deride.
  • Big picture thinkers, whereas managers tend to overly focus on the details, individual stages and logistics of a task or goal.
  • Frequently managers will overlook an opportunity due to their aforementioned narrow scope of concentration.
  • They do not blindly follow or blindly lead; an inadequate manager does both.

With the introduction of the “new economy” and a different type of workforce that transitioned from being lifelong employees at one single company, to holding as many as 12 to 15 jobs throughout their professional career, a leader is much more important than a manager. How so? The workforce should now be approached as a unit or team, opposed to an individual being groomed for lifelong employment.

A leader always approaches the people they work with as a team with individuals working as a whole. A manager will tend to focus on individuals and their individual yield of work. This might have been effective during the Industrial Revolution where a bottleneck in the production line could cost valuable time and materials, but this paradigm isn’t relevant or even well accepted in the new economy.

Leadership Trait Theory

Although it's hard to discern the specific attributes as they are mostly interpersonal, there is something called leadership trait theory that could help. This theory has ebbed and peaked in popularity throughout the years and has been added to since its first inception by Thomas Carlyle in 1849. Today it has been broken down into three subsets:

  • There are certain shared traits which we will look at later on.
  • Behavioural study has shown that these traits can be learned.
  • Some people postulate that it is situational, certain people when put in a situation will readily assume leadership roles, but in other circumstances they will not.

Modern leadership trait theory developed by Maryland University researchers Shelley Kirkpatrick and Edwin Locke, states that having certain attributes does not necessarily guarantee success, but there are a specific set of traits that are universally shared by effective leaders:

  • Drive
  • Leadership motivation
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Self-confidence
  • Cognitive ability
  • Knowledge

Drive is an umbrella term that can express ambition, motivation, learnability, persistence and a need for achievement and innovation. Leadership motivation is the ability to motivate and lead not for power but for the achievement of common goals. Honesty and integrity are self-evident attributes. Self-confidence not only has to do with self-assertiveness or confidence in one’s abilities and knowledge, but also with their emotional stability. Cognitive ability is also a self-evident attribute that doesn’t necessarily need to be elaborated upon. Finally, knowledge is critical as people will seek a leader that they can go to when there is a gap in their own knowledge.

Beyond these “core” attributes there are lesser supporting characteristics such as charisma, innovation or creativity and adaptability/flexibility.


It would be a gross oversight not to give some examples. We can look to these examples not only as a proven how-to-be guide but also for inspiration.


Jack Ma
Founder and Director of Alibaba

Alibaba in its very short 17-year lifespan has managed to compete with some of the biggest and most established veterans of the eCommerce industry such as Amazon and eBay. Not only does Alibaba compete, in some cases, it has managed to surprise these eCommerce giants all because of founder and director Jack Ma.

Ma steered the Alibaba group in a positive profit generating direction for most of his tenure; he has also pushed the company to become a diverse technological empire offering everything from eCommerce platforms to cloud computing, online payment, and streaming entertainment.

…from an English teacher being paid $15 a month

to one of the richest people in the world with a net worth of $18 billion.

But how did “Crazy Ma”, as he is known by his collaborators and teams, manage such a feat? Most reference Ma’s ceaseless momentum as a strong element; he keeps moving onwards and upwards, going from being an English teacher that was paid $15 a month to one of the richest people in the world with a net worth of $18 billion. He is also known for his extremely lofty ambitions and surrounding himself with the most capable people he can, because although he is a leader, he was also self-aware and not afraid to trust the people around him.

Zhang Ruimin
CEO Haier Group

When Ruimin took over the Haier Group, it was a faltering state-owned refrigerator manufacturer. But under his care it became one of the world’s leading household appliance manufacturers.

One of his most significant innovations was setting up smaller self-regulated teams of employees, which even chose their own management. To keep these little cells of employees motivated he offered generous bonuses when the company or the individual teams did well.

Jeff Bezos
Founder and CEO of Amazon

According to his own testimony, Bezos came up with the idea for Amazon while driving on a business trip when he was still working as an investment banker. His cohorts and fellow “Amazonians” describe Bezos as having inexhaustible energy.

Bezos also exists as a beacon for the company’s main tenet: the customer always comes first. Under Bezos innovative leadership the company also pivoted when the need arose, from online book and media retailer to include almost all consumer goods.

His cohorts… describe Bezos as having inexhaustible energy.

Each of these men exemplifies a different important attribute of leadership, while all sharing a thirst for innovation and forward thinking. Ma took a proven idea and expanded on it, Ruimin created an entirely new paradigm in his company and industry, with his employees at the centre and Bezos built an empire based on the needs of his market’s consumers.

Transitioning into an Administrative Role

leadership evolution

Seldom do people enter a leadership role without previous experience, even in an unrelated field. If you were doing a personal inventory while reading the previous section and lack most of those skills don’t worry, you can learn many of the attributes necessary to become a successful leader.

If, on the other hand, you have many of these attributes but do not feel well prepared or confident enough to lead, then it might just be a matter of being in the right circumstances, as postulated in the situational leadership theory.

 Leaders aren’t born, they are made – Vince Lombardi

The first and arguably largest obstacle you will encounter when transitioning into a higher administrative role, especially if your promotion happens within your department, is perception. Not your own perception but the perceptions of your previous coworkers and current subordinates. These are some of the ways you can navigate this potentially tumultuous situation as a true leader:

  • Be proactive – invite everyone you worked with to an open forum to let them know what you expect of them and of course what they expect from you.
  • Use HR Expertise – knowing when to pass the torch and call in someone that has expertise beyond your own is also a significant part of leadership. Inevitably your HR department has seen a myriad of transitions and can help you with experience that you do not have.
  • Be Transparent and Give a Voice – according to the American Psychological Association 1 in 3 employees feel that their employers are not honest, open or truthful with them. By shifting this paradigm, you can prove yourself as a leader while distancing yourself from your predecessors. Develop a plan and allow your team to give you feedback to fine tune it. It will establish a new dynamic between yourself and your former peers while still promoting your new role.

Constantly promoting your new role within your team is crucial; thus any personal relationships you might have had, any water-cooler talk discrediting management and allowing your team to vent to you is inappropriate. You might initially find it hard to strike this balance between professionalism and listening to valid complaints, but persistence is just another characteristic of your new role.

Self-Appointed Dangers

You take initiative; you are a gifted communicator and people frequently gravitate towards you, for advice and assistance. You feel that you have all the trappings of leader, but this is a dangerous road to be on.

First of all, this might bring you to conflict with management, no one wants a de facto leader to muddy and filter clear and concise communication. If you are the self-appointed spearhead of a project, then you might break a crucial feedback and communication loop, because management will not know that their information is going through you first. There is a much better way to show that you have what it takes.

If you are the self-appointed spearhead of a project, then you might break a crucial feedback and communication loop

Instead of pushing yourself into a role, plan for it and rise to the top. Take on responsibility and not necessarily control, when appropriate, ask to lead a new project instead of forcibly appointing yourself as the master. This will show management your eagerness to progress, without proverbially stepping on their toes.

Once you have sufficiently proved yourself and have not received the appropriate position, then you can ask for a leadership role. You must strive to have an unquestionable track record, so when a new position opens you have already proven yourself capable of taking on more than your standard workload.

Another strategy you can use is taking on projects which will increase your visibility beyond your department. High profile projects will put you in the sights of senior management and hopefully in line for any roles that might arise.

Follow The Leader 

The Harvard Business Review offers a great piece of advice worth mentioning:Find a leader that you admire and want to emulate. According to the article, you should choose characteristics that you can absorb or emulate while still being yourself.

Trying to force a certain behaviour or outright faking it, will make you less effective. People are generally attracted to and follow honest individuals and have an aversion to deceit.

The Pitfalls

An experienced leader will know most of the potential hazards, but a new comer might unintentionally fall into these negative habits, and when forced to make a correction, loose creditability. One of the most dangerous habits they can fall into is becoming complacent in a position of privilege and abusing the power that comes with said position.

Power can make you feel entitled resulting in self-serving and unethical behaviours. An interesting study conducted by psychologist Dr. Dacher Kelter at Berkley’s Social Interaction Laboratory called “the cookie monster” study, took a group of three people and arbitrarily appointed one leader. During the experiment, a plate with four freshly baked cookies was placed amongst the participants. In the majority of the cases, the fourth cookie was taken by the test subject that was appointed as a leader. They also had a higher tendency to chew with their mouths open, with little to no regard for the other participants.

In the majority of the cases, the fourth cookie was taken by the test subject that was appointed as a leader.

This experiment showed that people appointed in leadership roles, even arbitrarily, have a feeling of entitlement to shared resources. We have seen leaders abuse their power time and time again from Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi throwing parties with prostitutes and billing his taxpayers, to deposed Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, who bought a $87,000 area rug as his company was bleeding $15 billion worth of profits and laying off hundreds of employees. Here are few other examples to avoid (as referenced in this Forbes.com article):

  • Chesapeake Energy CEO - $5.9 Million on tickets to Oklahoma City Thunder games, which Aubrey McClendon is partial owner of. Also, he sold his antique map collection to his company for the tidy sum of $12.1 million.
  • Boston Scientific CEO – while being paid a company crippling $33.4 million a year salary, he was also given a $1.3 million relocation stipend.
  • Shaw Group CEO – although it’s an industry standard to pay former CEOs to keep sensitive information, James Bernhard has a contractual provision that says the princely sum of $15 million dollars will be paid to his heirs for two years after his death.

What Makes a Leader Great?


In a previous article, I mentioned the acronym B.A.S.E. which is a system developed by leadership coach and former Marine Brent Gleeson. B.A.S.E. is a system which can help a leader reinforce their position and convey their authority.

B.A.S.E. breaks down as:

Body Language – Even when not in front of people so called power poses can affect you on a biological level. Holding a “Superman/Wonderwoman pose” - hands in fists on the hips, chest out, chin slightly elevated and legs open beyond shoulder width - for just two minutes can decrease stress hormone levels and balance dopamine levels. It has been associated with increased cognitive function (temporarily), authority and confidence.

Authority – Authority is much more complex and gradual characteristic. It needs to be developed through consistency, transparency, knowledge, ethics and most importantly trust in your ability.

Sincerity – As I mentioned above 1 in 3 employees feel that their employers are not honest and transparent with them. Transparency also effects jobs satisfaction which in turn affects productivity. Thus being sincere and open with your employees not only starts to establish you as a great leader, but it will also help you accomplish common goals.

Empathy – Most leaders spent their tenure working for someone else; tap into this experience to help you treat your employees fairly. Being arrogantly dismissive, not allowing a reasonable period of adaptation or demanding unachievable results, can affect morale, productivity and talent

Job expert Peter Economy adds to this list:
Passion - it inspires both peers and subordinates.
Courage - which gives strength to the people that work with you especially when traversing a crisis.
Humility - is critical when creating lasting and sincere interpersonal relationships.  
The other characteristics Peter proposes either overlap or are similar to the pillars of B.A.S.E. theory, such as clarity and decisiveness.

How To Find The Balance

leadership balance

It is extremely challenging because beyond the interpersonal, and personal characteristic great leadership has to do with balance. It is a constant process of performing micro adjustments as various structures teeter on the precipice of toppling.

A great leader needs to be able to conceive the big picture while preserving a laser-like focus on the goals. They should be able to look at the micro effects of their policymaking and the macro effects of their decisions. If you lose sight of the small details the sum unravels and if you look too far forward, you will loose focus.

They also effectively balance interpersonal relationships with professional relationships. You can't be everyone’s buddy, and you will inevitably fail if you are a cold, distant enforcer. Being able to communicate with economy to avoid convoluting your message, but also ensuring you have said enough to convey your concept is yet another element you need to be able to balance.


It is very easy to deflect responsibility and take credit for the efforts of your team. This is a very effective way to create disengaged and resentful employees, that have no motivation. Giving credit where credit is due and admitting your role during failures or missteps will create tremendous loyalty amongst the teams you work with and individuals they are composed of.

On the other hand, if your employees adopt a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” mentality, you have a problem. If whenever anything goes wrong they are blamed, and they never receive credit if they perform well, they have no incentive to work hard.


It is important to be able to turn over responsibility to people that are more specialised than you are, or can perform said task quicker. Micromanaging and trying to regulate everything with extreme scrutiny will result in frustration, discontent and might cost you valuable time necessary to complete important administrative tasks.

Allowing your employees to be self-motivated, take the appropriate amount of initiative and complete tasks using their own experience and strengths can be immensely rewarding and motivating. Delegating is also about coordinating, not just giving people work, regulating workflow and being aware if a member of your team is overwhelmed so you can redistribute the workload.


If there is one characteristic that can be considered the bedrock of being both an effective and great leader it's communication skills. Communication takes many forms. First, you must be an effective interpersonal communicator.

You need to listen to your team's needs, grievances and concerns and either offer a solution or convey these items to your superiors. Furthermore, you need to be able to communicate and engage with groups of individuals. Finally, you need to be able to communicate with large groups of people, if called to do so.

It is an amalgamation of multiple characteristics, skills and abilities. No matter how well you prepare, you can always learn and expand your knowledge base regarding leadership.

One item that seems to be a universal standard amongst all types of high achievers is learnability – which is defined both as the ability and desire to learn and expand their knowledge continuously. There is an enormous breath of testimonies, advice, and articles regarding the topic all you need is a healthy appetite to learn.

If you believe that you are a very competent leader, then let us know some of the tricks, strategies, and skills you developed in the comments section below...

See Also: How to Show Your Boss You’re Leadership Material

Get our FREE eBook!
'6 Steps to Landing Your Next Job'





Get our FREE eBook!
'6 Steps to Landing Your Next Job'

G up arrow
</script> </script>