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By Dr. Anthony Patete
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Public University
Leadership is the subject of many books, articles and literary reviews. Why? Because a successful leader is the benchmark of business success.
This begs the questions: what is a good leader and how can we define a successful leader?
Your field or career will determine how you measure whether or not you are a successful leader. In the business world, for example, an increase in your company’s stock price is a sign of good leadership. In technology-based Silicon Valley, a successful leader is one who is innovative and also encourages employees to be innovative.
Why take the time to define a good or successful leader? With a clear definition of what makes a good leader, we can then teach the principles of good leadership to others so they can follow and mimic those principles.
Plato’s View of Leaders
Instinctively, we recognize that a leader is a person of good character. It is almost as if “I know it when I see it.” But that is not enough to mimic that behavior. Further analyses and discussions are needed.
The Greek philosopher Plato once asked, “Who can be a leader?” His answer was two-fold: Leadership involves characteristics that are innate (that is, characteristics people are born with); leadership also involves education and training (whereby a person learns how to be a leader and expand on the innate characteristics).
To go one step further, each of us knows the difference between right and wrong. Simply having been born with innate traits is not enough. Merely earning a degree does not make you a success.
The question becomes when does one go from being a follower to a leader, even without the title, power, responsibility, authority or control? Can anyone be a leader? Simply, yes.
Or, alternatively, do we instead adopt the principle of cultural relativism? According to cultural relativism, it is ethical to adopt behavioral standards based on the norms of the host community or organization. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In other words, if an organization is ethical, then its leaders are ethical, too. If an organization is unethical, then its leaders are also unethical.
Leaders can be created and do not always come from leadership pools. In fact, leaders can come from the rank and file and from the common man. In the quest to define leadership, existing literature has come up with diverse characteristics of successful leaders. They are as diverse as they are similar.
Therefore to define leadership, can we use a common business concept to further define it? I suggest a SWOT analysis. This is an analytical technique used to determine and define several key characteristics: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
Of course, this is situational, but is not leadership situational? I recall hearing a lecture back in the day about a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who would come home to his mansion in the suburbs after making global business decisions and millions of dollars of transactions. While home, his wife asked him to take out the trash. Leadership is situational. At work, Mr. CEO is in charge; at home, Mrs. CEO is in charge.
Leadership characteristics are diverse and include:
- Ability to delegate
- Sense of humor
- Positive attitude
- Ability to inspire
Good Leaders Should Follow the CARET Principles
There is a simpler definition of leadership characteristics. It involves the acronym CARET, which stands for communication, accountability, respect, education and trust.
Communication is a soft skill that some people are born with and others learn. Being able to talk to colleagues, employees, stakeholders and customers is critical. Being able to convey thoughts, ideas and ideals is leadership. How else will others know what to expect or what is the vision of the leader?
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.” — Plato
Clearly, leaders are accountable for their own actions.
The discussions become complex when a leader is accountable for others or for the team. Apposite to this is sharing successes. Teams may share success, but leaders assume blame. Leaders are responsible for others. When leaders hold others responsible but not themselves, then it should be no surprise that leadership will suffer.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Take full account of what Excellencies you possess, and in gratitude remember how you would hanker after them, if you had them not.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Leaders must respect themselves and others. Oftentimes, this is difficult, especially when a leader is responsible for a team and the team is not successful. In that moment a leader is tested and is born. How can a police officer arrest a defendant who has just slain a fellow officer and still treat the defendant with respect?
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
As Plato said, not every leader is born with leadership characteristics; however, leaders can learn how to lead and how to make difficult decisions that unify a team and command respect. Some call this wisdom; others call it integrity.
“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” — Benjamin Franklin
How do leaders protect against an erosion of integrity in their organization? By educating and retaining those workers in the organization who have a strategic focus on the organization’s stated goals, mission and vision statement.
Leaders must have the trust of those they lead. A failure to have that trust can lead to disaster.
How does a leader obtain the trust of the team? That trust must be earned. For sure, trust can be compelled. However, for leadership to be effective, trust must be earned.
How does a leader gain that trust? Trust comes from being honest with your team, knowing your role and what is expected. You must also have self-confidence and be a risk-taker when tough decisions are required, keeping in mind that you can’t satisfy everyone.
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Consistency and Predictability
My friend Tom’s mother, an immigrant from Ireland, always served the same dinner: something brown, something green, something white. True, there was consistency and predictability, two characteristics of leadership; however, never did Tom’s mother serve us carrots. Perhaps she should have. Leaders must eat their CARETs.
About the Author
Anthony Patete is a faculty member at American Public University and other universities. He has taught law and business for more than 15 years and has been an administrator in post-secondary education. “Dr. P”, as his students affectionately call him, provides his students with seasoned instruction and career guidance.