What does it take to be a good leader? How about a great leader? Over my 20+ year military career, I’ve worked for many GOOD leaders and I’ve also been fortunate to work for a couple GREAT leaders. They all got the job done, but the truly GREAT leaders inspired those around them to achieve more than they thought was possible. They had certain skills and characteristics that enabled them to build high-performing teams and create a culture for success.
There definitely is no shortage of information available on how to be a more effective leader. In fact, when you type “leadership” into Google’s search bar it returns 489,000,000 results. So, why are GREAT leaders so rare?
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of different aspects that separate bad, average, good and great leaders. After studying and observing leaders of all kinds in action, there are 10 common characteristics and skills that separate the bad/average from the good/great leaders.
First, the leader must be mission focused. The mission of the organization serves as the unifying sense of purpose. For aircraft maintenance units, the mission is to keep airplanes flying, the communications commander keeps comm systems up and running, etc. A person could be the most motivating and inspiring person around, but if they aren’t mission focused, or are focused on the wrong mission, then everything else doesn’t matter.
Second, a good leader will be people-centric. That doesn’t mean they coddle and baby their personnel. Sometimes it’s providing constructive feedback and counseling to help the member improve.
Good leaders seek to push people up by training, developing and mentoring them to achieve their full potential. Of course, for some people, as former GE CEO Jack Welch used to say, it’s allowing underperforming workers the opportunity to excel in another field of work.
Third, good leaders have an unquenchable thirst for excellence. They set high standards for themselves and their organization, and they hold people accountable. The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”
Fourth, good leaders know how to make decisions. Have you ever had a boss that would not make a decision until he had 100 percent of the facts? Well, that’s not a decision, that’s a foregone conclusion! Or, have you ever had a boss that was too quick to decide without hearing even 20 percent of the facts? Somewhere in the middle, depending on the circumstances, is the sweet spot. Remember, leaders get paid to make good decisions.
The fifth level of leadership is effective communication. Good leaders know how and when to communicate. Because “message sent” does not always mean “message received,” good leaders know their audience and adjust fire accordingly. Author George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
If good leaders seek to become great leaders, they must develop other intangible skills. The sixth characteristic of both good and great leaders is that they bring an optimistic and energetic approach to everything they do. In the National Football League, there are no chronic pessimists in the head coaching ranks. Every NFL coach believes his team is going to win next week, and that is the same level of confidence and optimism that great leaders share — they all think tomorrow can be better than today.
Seventh, great leaders have vision of a better tomorrow. Strategic vision is not something you’re born with; it is something that is instilled in you from day one through all of your life experiences. People at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas in 1962 thought President John F. Kennedy was crazy to suggest going to the moon. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan’s own press secretary urged him not to utter those famous six words at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin that changed the world.
But, they had confidence in a vision forged by a lifetime of leading and learning.
Eighth, great leaders know that not everything always goes as planned. They know that they must persevere and be the steady rock when things go wrong or when all else has failed. President Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the poster child for perseverance, said: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”
Ninth, great leaders have a strong sense of physical and moral courage. They know that they must lead by example in this area. They know that moral and physical courage, when combined with training and preparation, enable a unit to execute its mission in the heat of the moment. This is where heroes are made, and there have been no shortage of heroes in the history of the U.S. Air Force.
Finally, the 10th level of great leadership is that rare inspiring character that is built upon 24/7 integrity, trust and confidence. It’s that motivating teacher, coach or mentor that captures the hearts of their personnel to believe they can achieve greatness.
The most dynamic, positive leader I have ever been around was my wing commander at Langley Air Force Base, Va., General Bill Looney. He said simply, “to create a world-class organization that thrives, it takes leadership that inspires and motivates.”
In the end, leaders, for better or worse, influence the culture of their organization. Their team, unit, squadron etc. takes on the personality of the leader. Great leaders execute at all 10 levels of leadership and their teams are highly successful. Never forget that leadership is hard work, and it is a team sport. As President Harry S. Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”