How To Properly Define "Great Leader"--And Act Like One

We don't think of leadership as some set of fuzzy, intangible character qualities that some people are born with and others are not. We think of leadership as the performance of behaviors. The skill of performing these behaviors can be learned and developed by anybody. Some people do not develop these skills and therefore do not perform leader behaviors with much competence. Others develop some skill and become pretty good leaders. Others develop considerable skill and become great leaders.

Let's define great leader so it is clear what we are talking about.

A great leader helps a group of people identify what they want and how to get it, and then influences that group, free of coercion, to take coordinated action to achieve the desired outcomes. A great leader achieves results at a level far beyond what others achieve.

Consider some of the world's recent great leaders. Nelson Mandela. Steve Jobs. Mother Theresa. Bill Gates. They all used their leadership talents--diverse as they may be--to make lives better in some way: achieving freedom, making advanced technology available to all of us, improving living conditions in low-income communities, creating a global foundation that propels the idea that all lives have equal value.

But what do great leaders do to achieve great results?

Leadership has three building blocks. We call these three modes of behavior the 3 As of Leadership.

  • Analyzing: Figuring out what outcomes are desired and how to achieve them.
  • Allocating: Establishing a plan to concentrate scarce resources, like money, time, and people, toward their highest and best uses, and away from areas of waste.
  • Aligning: Influencing people to behave in a coordinated way, according to the plan, to achieve the desired outcomes.

Analyzing

Analyzing "feels" like studying something to understand it. It is a messy and exploratory process. It might seem like detective work. The leader generates insights through talking with people on the ground, through research, through reviewing numbers and information, through contemplating the nature of a problem or an opportunity. And then she tests hypotheses about what is real.

At the end of the day, analyzing helps the leader find answers to the right questions. Questions like "Why isn't our product selling?" or "Why are so many of our children dropping out of school?" or "How do we balance the budget and keep citizens happy?"

Leaders who don't spend enough time analyzing are said to leap before they look. And those who spend too much are said to suffer from analysis paralysis. Weak analyzing often leads to solving minor problems first (because it's easier to find a solution) rather than identifying the problems at the heart of the success or failure.

Allocating

Allocating "feels" like deciding. It requires making careful trade-offs, often difficult ones, that may affect vast numbers of people. The work of analyzing leads smoothly into the tough decisions of allocating. Data, evidence, and logic are the foundations of great decisions. Allocating incorporates all of that information--and adds judgment, instincts, and nerve. While it's logical, it's also creative. Getting the most out of the resources under your control often requires a good deal of imagination.

The skill of allocating, if applied poorly, makes a leader seem erratic, or like a slash-and-burn cold-hearted tyrant. But the process of making decisions does not need to be accompanied by yelling or divisive rhetoric. The best leaders say something to the effect of, "Here are the fundamental areas on which we should focus our energy. Here is what we will achieve and by when."

The best allocators are said to be "decisive" or "great prioritizers." They are willing to make tough decisions. They are willing to be innovative, to sometimes break with tradition, to overcome inertia. They are willing to put resources into high-priority new ideas that are likely to produce a large positive impact. They've already done the hard work of analyzing, and they've identified what stakeholders want and need. Now they're ready to make the best plan using the resources at hand and make the investment.

Aligning

Great leaders realize that little will get done if they act alone. Once a group's desired outcomes have been identified, once the way to achieve them has been defined and planned, it is time to align. To achieve the desired outcomes, great leaders influence other people to take coordinated action. They understand how a shared mission can galvanize teams and excite customers and stakeholders.

Aligning "feels" like persuading. It is keeping people's sights focused on big-picture goals. Convincing people to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Motivating people to willingly and enthusiastically contribute their talents and energy to achieve results. Simply put, great leaders are persuasive and inclusive, not divisive.

Great aligners clarify expectations, they make the case for why tasks are worth doing, and they follow up to make sure those tasks gets done.

This aligning skill, if used to an excessive extent, makes a leader seem "too soft" or look like he "likes to be liked to a fault." Trying to make everybody happy will get you nowhere. This aligning mode, if not used at all, makes a leader seem distant, lacking empathy, or not interested in anybody's opinion but her own. You know the type. The boss who makes big changes without discussing them with anybody, ramming new plans down people's throats. People might go through the motions to execute, but nobody puts in their best effort for leaders who don't care about their teams' opinions.

When leaders align well, they are said to be "inspirational" or "consensus-builders." People might commend them on being "firm but fair" in holding others accountable. Leaders with a skill for aligning also communicate well, but be careful! A great aligner is not somebody who just gives feel-good speeches. Today, I evaluate the effectiveness of any speech by the degree to which it motivated me to take action. Don't insult me with rhetoric and vagueness and reflections that assure me that you feel my pain. Instead, influence me to take action! A great aligner can motivate people to act, even when action is hard. Even when they aren't sure whether the leader's plan will succeed.

Leadership skills take years of hard work to develop. The 3 As of Leadership are the modes of behavior that great leaders use to achieve the best results. They are universally applicable. High performance is not achieved because of rules and laws and policies. High performance is achieved because great leaders bring people together to achieve a common goal.

Reprinted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group. Excerpted from LEADOCRACY: Hiring More Great Leaders (Like You) Into Government. Copyright 2012 Geoff Smart. All rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user Racoles]

Add New Comment

3 Comments

  • Kent Julian

    Great leaders lead by example and direct without misuse of their power.
    They are able to unleash potentials and inspire others in a direction of greater good
    so clearly that they become inspired to see it in themselves. Great thoughts here, Geoff!