May 25, 2015
Ask a thousand people what skills a leader needs and you’ll likely get a thousand different answers. Over the years I’ve wrestled with the many definitions and character expectations that exist for leaders. I’ve come to believe that there are six primary skills that are essential to becoming a leader worth following.
These are adaptable to any leadership context and involve both external and internal skills. This distinction is important because I believe much leadership material excludes the internal component, because character development is not a high priority in many leadership circles. Here they are with a brief description of each.
1. The ability to define reality
The importance of this skill cannot be overstated. In fact, this ability is one that will set apart the great leaders from the mediocre ones. It's not an easy skill, and certainly experience helps in honing this ability over time. Here's why it's so important. Most people lean towards their preferences, not necessarily the reality.
They view the landscape around them through this filter, which can distort what is critical in the moment. They often make decisions based on what they like and what excites them. Great leaders avoid doing this. They have the ability to stand back and objectively see what is needed for the good of the people and the organization they lead.
That is not to say that great leaders don't have preferences, it's just not what governs their vision, reality does. Facts are a leader’s friend. Great leaders are not timid when it comes to assessing and analyzing in order to gain clarity. Often, people are propelled into leadership roles because they have the ability to assess real needs that are coupled with tangible ways to meet those needs, in a way that few were able to see before.
2. The ability to be self-aware
The most difficult person for any leader to lead is themselves. In fact, many otherwise good leaders, have fallen because of some flaw or weakness they could not manage or control. Without a deep awareness of your strengths, weaknesses, and potential shortcomings, you will struggle with leading others with integrity. A self-aware leader is best at building teams whose gifts are complimentary to theirs without fear of competition.
We've all worked under the weight of a leader who lacked self-awareness, and without it, there is little or no room for self-improvement in that person's life. It becomes a dead-end, not only for the leader, but for the potential that is left untapped within that leader's team and organization. Self-aware leaders tend to be more humble, and humility has been shown to give leaders a greater sense of their own abilities and limitations, as well as a characteristic most appreciated by those they lead.
3. The ability to move beyond why to what now.
A lot has been written of late concerning the importance of clarifying the why. As documented in other writings, the why is what gives motivation to some of the great products and movements of our times (Steve Jobs of Apple, Martin Luther King on freedom).
I’m not discounting the importance of why, but the key rests on the motivation that the why question stirs in us that moves us to action. What I call the what now. Almost everyone who has written on the importance of why intrinsically includes the action that is generated by it. I'm making a point of stressing the action side for a reason.
Ask anyone if its important to help the poor, guard the planet, educate our children, or protect our freedoms and you won’t find many who will argue against those investments. Its just not everyone who is motivated to engage in ways that truly make a difference.
I recently read a descriptor of a person who was geared toward action. It described them as those who came with batteries. I loved that picture, because I immediately could recall leaders I've known who had great personal motivation and drive and the difference their leadership made.
4. The ability to ignite a fire in others.
When I was on the church planting committee for a major denomination, we learned that only 1 in 25 leaders is a true visionary who could inspire others. I found that hard to believe when I first heard it, but over time, it proved itself time and again. Visionary leaders are truly a rarity. Few can see the potential of an organization, parse the reality, yet see the direction it needs to take.
These are the types of people who get uncomfortable at being comfortable and uneasy with the status-quo. They see better days and brighter futures ahead yet have a way of exciting others with the picture they create. I still remember hearing how Walt Disney took investors into the middle of swamps and open fields and created such a compelling image of the magic place he wanted to create that it moved investors to reconsider.
I don't know if that story is even true, but it illustrates well the kind of inspirational impetus visionary leaders can create. Here is the key, great visions are rarely developed by a group. It is often the result of a single visionary leader (or small group). But the realization of a great vision is rarely done alone, so the ability to fire up others and build collaboration is vital.
A second thing to keep in mind. Some of you will say, I'm not one of the visionary leaders mentioned in the statistics above so this doesn't apply to me. Maybe so, but you can be future-oriented in the way you lead, rather than simply accepting things as they are.
5. The ability to put others first.
To put others first is at the heart of servant leadership. I think its safe to say that we are all tired of leaders who are motivated more by their own selfish aspirations and greed. Suffice it to say, when we are driven by selfishness, there is a tendency to compromise on matters of integrity along the way. It just becomes a downward spiral that we've seen too many times to count.
The art of leading for the benefit of others has long been relegated to the realm of religion and social action movements. But recent studies continue to show the benefits of servant leadership as demonstrated in books like Jim Collins' Good to Great.
As church leaders, this is the non-negotiable, but for other marketplace leaders, not so much. Regardless, a leader who is authentically concerned for the welfare and betterment of others will rarely suffer from a following.
6. The ability to make decisions.
This may surprise some of you, but decision paralysis is a common problem. The inability to make a decision leaves people and organizations in a holding pattern, and if left there too long, can be fatal. I'm even going to venture to say that sometimes it's better to make a bad decision instead of no decision, especially if you've been known for never making a decision in the first place.
Of course, if you are historically known for consistently making bad decisions then you need help of another kind. (Like working through Chip and Dan Heath's book, Decisive). I read recently that trust is built in leaders when they are able to demonstrate competency and follow-through.
Nothing contributes to these more than good decision making. I've often heard it said that our lives are nothing more than the culmination of the decisions we've made over time.
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