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The making of a great leader

April 13, 2011

Because my husband owns an expanding small business — and because I’m asked to perform managerial duties at my workplace (and follow other leaders), the idea of “what makes a great leader” is something on my mind as of late. There are tons of books, audio tapes, training courses, television programs, websites, magazine articles, quotes, essays, speaking seminars and fortune cookies devoted to the topic — but here’s my humble take.

Note: The majority of these thoughts have been created by what I desire in my leaders – and by the person I strive (and often fail) to be. Whether you’re a mom, a friend, or a CEO, we are all called to be leaders of goodness and truth in the world.

1. A great leader is one who inspires people to follow them.

From parents to presidents to pastors, this idea of “inspiration” is perhaps the key ingredient in leadership (in my experience at least). It is the gift of inspiring people to listen, inspiring them to do great work, inspiring them to follow some standard of rules — and inspiring them to be better because of your guidance. Inspiration is the key word here because it is a very different sort of motivation. Inspiration is not motivated by fear or dictatorship. It is not motivated by bribing or money. It is something bigger than that — something emotional, spiritual even, that starts in the very belly of our beings and expands outwards to the world. It is, in a sense, our “muse.” It creates a desire for good. It makes us our best selves. And it is a gift to both the giver and the recipient.We all can think of a time when we’ve heard somebody talking and we get that goose bump feeling – the one that makes you think, “Wow, this person makes me want to be better.”

2. The greatest leaders are not those who demand respect, but who, by their actions, earn it.

They lead by serving. The teach by doing. From Jesus to Ghandi to Oprah, they inspire people by doing first — and speaking second. A Servant Leader has both confidence and humility — and people follow them because they believe in their philosophy. Whether you’re selling cars, running a business or serving the poor, your philosophy must be one that the people following you respect. I don’t believe in the phrase, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” The best businesses are personal. They are made of persons who long for purpose, inspiration and strong leadership that guides them toward greater ambitions. A great leader sees her business as not a series of cubicles and spreadsheets, but as persons who are trying to achieve a common goal.

3. There is no above and no below.

Organizational charts serve a purpose, but when a leader begins to think of themselves as “above” other people, that’s when they begin to fail. It’s important to have the final decision maker, the lighthouse to guide the ships, and the authority voice to comfort a chaotic boardroom. But when it comes to working toward a specific goal, we are all in it together. From the person who scrubs the floor to the person sitting in the corner office, we all have incredible value: no matter what our pay stubs may say.

4. If you want to be heard, seek first to listen.

There are many times when I’ve been too quick to scold, nay say or scoff – and then, just as quickly as I got worked up, I was diffused by simply listening to an explanation. If people don’t feel heard, they won’t want to follow you. This is because we long to know that our leaders are leading with our best interest at heart. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.”


Leadership is found in many shapes and sizes. It is found in a soft confidence and in a loud, boisterous voice. It is in a tall businessman by the name of Bill Gates and a short woman in India by the name of Mother Teresa. And it is also in you. Which is why it is important for us to ask ourselves: If people are following me, where am I leading them?

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