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The One True Measure of a Great Leader

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Think of the name of a great leader, someone whose prowess you greatly admire. Now list the three most important characteristics of the leader.


When we conduct this exercise, there is considerable variation in the lists, but there is also some overlap. Words such as “Decisive”, “Inspiring,” and “Visionary” are often on the list.

Interestingly, some of the characteristics people list are virtual opposites of each other. For example, the lists often contain both “Passionate” and “Unemotional.” “Big picture thinker” and “Detail oriented” have appeared at the same time, as have “Good listener” and “Decisive, not easily persuaded by others.” The fact is that leaders utilize a wide variety of competencies.

Related: You Don't Have to Be a CEO to Develop Leadership Qualities

Our participants are then asked to share the name of the leader they selected. The list of names will include former bosses, coaches and mentors of the participants. It will also include famous leaders such as Lee Iacocca, Vince Lombardi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jack Welsh, George Patton, , Bear Bryant, Mother Theresa, , Tommy Lasorda and Ike Eisenhower.

It’s not surprising that this diverse group of leaders would generate the list of vastly different characteristics described above. We then ask the question, “What does this group of diverse leaders have in common?”

The answer is that they all led organizations, teams or countries that succeeded under their leadership. Successful leaders lead organizations that achieved great things. No one ever lists the coach who had a lifetime record of 26 wins and 189 losses or the CEO whose company had flat sales and stagnant profits. Without exception, great leaders are people who led organizations that achieved their goals.

If you want to measure the quality of a leader, look at the success of the organization he or she runs. The key to being a great leader is to set goals and achieve results, full stop. The new leadership paradigm is about goal achievement.

Related: 7 Telltale Signs of a Weak Leader

Our country is filled with corporations that have performance systems based on competencies. Someone, usually an human resources person, has tried to identify a set of characteristics that will result in good leadership at the various levels of the corporation. Everyone, from front-line supervisors to senior managers, is evaluated against these competencies. These evaluations drive compensation and the likelihood of promotion. The implicit assumption is that if managers at each level in the organization possess the appropriate characteristics they will be successful.

Unfortunately, successful leaders possess a wide range of often-conflicting characteristics. The fact is that two people whose outward characteristics look very different can both be successful leaders. Evaluating the quality of a person’s leadership by comparing them to a set of competencies is a fundamentally flawed approach.

The new paradigm for leadership focuses on goal achievement within the context of the organization’s values. For example, George Patton was without question a great leader and a successful general, but given his style, it is unlikely that he could have been a successful leader in the church. His behavior was simply at odds with the value system of that organization.

Creating success in your company is a matter of establishing a process that causes realistically high goals to be set at each level of the organization. The goals must be aligned with the overall strategy of your business and with each other. People must then be held accountable for achieving their goals within the values of your organization. Such a system will not only deliver outstanding results, but will also develop outstanding leaders for the future.

Related: 7 Enduring Leadership Lessons From 'The Daily Show's' Jon Stewart

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