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February 2023
Vol. 22, No. 5
In Good Company


The Seven Marks of a Leader

by Peter BollandJune 2015

Let’s talk about bad bosses — the screamers, the belittlers, the tyrants who are terrified of any challenge to their throne, burdened by emotional baggage they toil ceaselessly to foist on everyone else. Then think about the great teachers, coaches, mentors, and bosses you’ve had, the ones who got it right — kind and thoughtful leaders who drew from you qualities you didn’t even know you had. If you distilled the essence of their excellence into seven core components, what would they be?

A good leader is bold. Timidity erodes confidence. But a good leader does not mistake bluster and aggression for boldness. Being bold means embodying courage — courage to overcome one’s own limitations and see past the limitations of others. Being bold means speaking the truths that must be spoken plainly, directly, and kindly. Being bold means having the guts to admit when you’re wrong, and being strong enough to stretch into empathetic understanding of your opponents. When your team members and subordinates see these qualities in you, they reach deep into their own strengths and walk with you toward a well-articulated aim.

A good leader has vision. And they hold that vision while others around them lose sight of it. They don’t get bogged down by the minutiae of process or the technical hurdles that always arise. They lift their eyes to the ideal while stopping short of using the ideal to denigrate current conditions. Staying positive, emphasizing what’s right and framing what’s wrong as temporary and under revision, a good leader inspires its team through sheer confidence in the notion that the impossible is possible if we’re relentless enough. Being a leader means having the imagination and the muscle to perceive the good and steer toward it.

A good leader is humble. They’re not afraid of saying the three most powerful words in the English language: I don’t know. They understand that wisdom begins with the admission of ignorance and blossoms under careful cultivation, in collaboration with thoughtful others in continual dialogue. Where there is no humility, there cannot be wisdom. Nothing diminishes the confidence others have in you more rapidly and permanently than arrogance and self-aggrandizement. Trash talk and braggadocio only spotlights your neediness and low self-esteem. The people we really admire are the ones who stand in the background and wow us with their quiet accomplishments. A good leader deflects the light so that it shines on others.

A good leader values creation over process. You never know where the real solutions are going to come from, and rigid conformity to existing processes stifles genuine growth. It is the task of managers to faithfully execute processes, while it is the task of leaders to test the limitations of existing processes. These two disparate goals need not be characterized by hierarchy and conflict. In fact, it is the duty of leaders to ensure that this disparity is lovingly honored. Leaders are kept afloat by a sea of managers, technicians, and other process experts — they must respectfully honor those whose task it is to carry out the processes crafted by previous leaders. Yet leaders must be creative enough to take warranted risks when emerging flaws in existing processes prove destructive. Managers will hunker down and try to work with what they’ve got. Leaders are willing to toss it all aside and start over. Both are right.

A good leader works harder than everyone else. They see themselves as a worker among workers, not as a superior. A manager sits back and directs the actions of others, pushing from behind. A leader gets out front and pulls. By setting the example, a leader creates the space in which her team members rise up and contribute, each in a way best suited to their own unique strengths. Leaders leave lots of room for this. You draw the best out of people by appealing to their better natures and attracting them into viable, mutually rewarding opportunities, not through browbeating and derision. The title of leader is not conferred for past accomplishments — it is earned through effort and vision. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. What matters is who you are. A leader embodies the principle that all work is service. Time and time again, a good leader proves his servitude and sacrifice, never asking for recognition or reward. The only reward a good leader needs is a thriving, enthusiastic, and competent team producing real results and creating work of lasting value.

A good leader brings stillness into every room they enter. Theirs is a calming presence. There is enough anxiety, resentment, conflict, and animosity inherent in any endeavor — no need to add to the problem. A leader’s role is to bring balance to imbalance, stability to instability, and medicine to disease. A leader is a healer, a reconciler, and a builder of bridges. By modeling the consciousness of serenity and peace, a good leader deflates the self-righteousness of the messiahs, mollifies the aggression of the combatants, and soothes the wounds of the aggrieved. Peace begins in recognizing responsibility and acknowledging one another’s perceptions. But it only really grows in common ground. A leader looks for ways to establish and honor our shared mission, our complementary differences, and our common humanity. We are not our roles — we are human beings, struggling under the weight of a host of difficult demands at home and at work. A good leader draws our attention to what’s right, what’s working, and what’s better than it used to be. We already know what’s not working — it’s demoralizing to keep being reminded. Instead, good leaders help their teams slow down and relax, leaving space in which exploration, innovation, and accomplishment can arise. Peace equals progress.

A good leader is emotionally intelligent. It really helps to be talented, smart, and insightful. But none of that matters if your virtues are eclipsed by emotional dysfunction. A good leader is compassionate, empathetic, perceptive, disciplined, playful, principled, and merciful. Trading enemies lists for the spiritual practice of continual forgiveness, good leaders grow beyond the consciousness of resentment, simplistic narratives of heroes and villains, and reductionist interpretations of complex, nuanced scenarios. They see past the self-serving black-and-white world of the emotionally wounded. A good leader is an optimist, honoring the best in themselves and others in even the darkest of times.

In your family, in your classroom, in your committee, in your team, in your band, or in your boardroom, think about how these seven characteristics of good leadership apply. If you work alongside a leader, help them lead. If you are a leader, know this: you set the tone for your team. Who we are and how we walk into a room speaks volumes and sets patterns long before the PowerPoint presentation begins. Real leadership doesn’t come from the intellect with its data and talking points. Those are just the bricks. Real leadership is the mortar we use to bind it all together, made from the virtues of our character. The best leaders never set out to become leaders — they rose from the ranks on the loft of their uncompromising personal excellence. Despite the prevailing cynicism of our times, virtue is still recognized and rewarded, amplifying like echoes in a canyon. Just show up, do good work, hold a high vision for what’s possible, trust people, and get out of their way.

Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter.

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