Written by Glenn Wallis

What is it to be a great leader?

First, let’s get one thing straight: being a ‘great’ leader is not always the same as being a ‘famous’ leader. When thinking of individual leaders we can tend to consider only examples of well-known figures that have contributed significantly to changing the world.

In my work with senior leaders, I tend to avoid the trap of holding up famous leaders as examples, for two very simple reasons. Firstly, you are not expected to change the world. It would be fabulous if you do of course, but it is not essential to be considered ‘great.’ Secondly, whilst many leaders I work with understand the possibility of the lessons to be learned from reading about the likes of: Winston Churchill, Joan of Arc, Dr Martin Luther King, Benazir Bhutto, and Ghandi, many more leaders struggle to see themselves achieving such great heights.

In our recent book Leader iD, names such as: Steve, Marie, Marc, Ramanjeet and Esther populate our list of great leaders. All ‘normal’ people doing normal jobs to a very high standard. People who have moved from being outstanding in their chosen technical fields, to being excellent leaders of teams and organisations. People who typically remain unknown outside their immediate circle and industry but within which are deemed to be ‘great’ leaders. People very much like you.

That is why being a ‘great’ leader is well within your capability.

Why haven’t we heard of the greatest leader?

You can still be considered a great leader without achieving global recognition. Indeed, for most leaders in organisations the extent of their celebrity is likely to finish at the gates of their place of work. For many, it will not even extend much beyond the office in which they work. But that is not to deny them a level of greatness because leadership greats are not measured by scale of achievement alone but by also by longevity and consistency of their leadership performance.

So, is it just that the very best leaders are working away quietly in organisations, all hours of the day and that is why you don’t know them? Only partly. In his popular book Good to Great about how organisations can excel, Jim Collins identified that many excellent organisations are led by what he termed ‘Level 5’ leaders. These leaders are characterised by Collins as: having low ego-need; high humility; a keen desire to share successes and any accompanying glory and also a shyness backed with a steely determination to get things done. These are not the attributes of someone who is likely to be well known and therefore, it is quite likely we may not have heard of the very best leaders.

I think there are two other, perhaps more controversial reasons why we may not have heard of the greatest leaders. Firstly, in my experience the greatest leader is as likely, if not more so, to be a woman, as it is a man. The best female leaders I have coached often approach developing their leadership more actively than their male counterparts. I have discovered many reasons for this and generalising may not be helpful but one theme that emerges often is that female leaders are excellent corporate citizens. They tend to be loyal to the organisation first and their own self-promotion and office politics a distant second. The final reason we may not have heard of the greatest leaders is simply that in my experience, leadership is not discussed to the same extent on these islands as elsewhere. There is little in the way of meaningful ongoing debate about leadership in the public domain and as such, leaders and leadership are likely to fly under the radar.

Dr Glenn P Wallis is an expert leadership coach and is the co-author of new business book Leader iD, out now, priced £14.99.


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