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The Characteristics of Legendary Leadership

We all know a great leader when we see one, but what are the characteristics we would list if we were called upon to define why we would follow any person willingly and with passion? 


Ready for a little mental exercise?  Picture in your mind’s eye the most effective leader you have ever known.  If this takes more than a few seconds, or if your example is someone you knew a decade ago, or if you can’t find a picture of anyone in your mind, it illustrates one of the common complaints in organizations today…the lack of competent leadership. But I digress. Go back to searching your mind for a leader. I want you to picture an actual person. Someone you know or work with. Not a historical figure that appears on our money supply or a sports figure you would like to meet.  Someone you would willingly follow.   Someone you respect and admire.


Can you see him or her? Now that you have a person in mind, ask yourself why you value this individual.  What behaviors does he/she exhibit and how does that impact on you, your potential, your attitude, your motivation and your productivity?  


If you couldn’t think of anyone, this is not only a sad state of affairs; it may mean all the people in leadership positions you have known are still a work in progress. Slip this column to them and circle those attributes they should work on.


The first critical lesson for people who aspire to legendary leadership is to draw the distinction between management and leadership. Competent managers know how to plan, organize, direct and control.  Leaders know all of this and, in addition, understand how to forge relationships.  People in organizations need leadership far more than they need to be managed.

So, what are the characteristics of an effective leader in the 21st century?  It really should not be a mystery since most people experience some form of organizational leadership and could generate a list of their own.  I have, however, built a list of a number of essential behaviors.


Leaders delegate tasks and the power to complete them.  They know that to have influence, they must empower others.  They are not intimidated by the excellence of others.  They surround themselves with the best, nurture brilliance and celebrate the success of others.


Leaders have credibility.  They earn the trust of their team through uncompromising integrity. They are straightforward, honest and truthful.


Leaders are excellent communicators.  They do not expect their team to be clairvoyant.  They are explicit and clearly state their expectations. 


Leaders are superior listeners.  They realize that communication is a two way commitment.  They don’t just ask the questions, they wait to hear the responses.  They know that ideas, recommendations, solutions and information of the collective mind need to be harvested.  It makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.


Leaders are interesting and interested.  They are interesting because they read, study, have diverse interests and believe in personal and professional development.  They show their interest in others through listening, considering and responding.


Leaders are risk takers.  They are not afraid of failure.  They would rather fail than be paralyzed by indecision.


Leaders are decisive.  While they believe in participation and the input of the work group, they are not afraid to make the hard choices.


Leaders understand the delicate mechanism of human behavior.  They know what motivates people and how to appropriately reinforce commendable behavior.


Leaders embrace diversity.  They know the richness multiple points of view bring to an organization and to its decision making potential.


Leaders have passion.  They have an energy and an interest in the mission of the organization that is contagious.


Leaders have vision.  They know where they are going.  People are very reluctant to follow anyone who is confounded by uncertainly.


This list is not meant to be comprehensive.  It’s a start.  Leaders will not be successful without a successful team.  These attributes will help forge a team out of a multifaceted work group. 


Take the picture of the person and compare their attributes to this list.  If you are in a managerial position, take a look in the mirror and take inventory or yourself.