Leading Fully

Patrick Ogburn's Leadership Blog

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What Comprises Great Leadership?

(from “FTL Update, Nov 24, 2009. Click Here to Subscribe)

Developing Character as a Leader

Over the years, I have spent many hours in dialogue with corporate leaders about how to define leadership. Most of these conversations were in the context of identifying and developing internal leadership talent or identifying and selecting external candidates based on leadership characteristics. More often than I care to admit, the conversations would end in an unresolved exploration of the “it” factor — that certain inarticulable attribute of leadership; the thing that you can see in leaders but can’t describe. Some have called this the “leadership gene.”

Who Do You Think Of?

When I think about that difficult to describe set of attributes, I am reminded of my grandfather. He was respected by his friends, colleagues, and family members. He was a well-known geologist, and known as a gentleman. He was fun-loving and yet wise, competent, and hard working. He was widely respected for his integrity and fairness in business dealings, and he was kind and respectful to all people. His life was rooted in core moral values. I can remember writing a college application essay about him – the topic of which was “The Person I Most Admire.” Retrospectively, I can see that what I admired in my grandfather was the “leadership gene.” The “it” factor.

Great Leadership is Not Out of Reach

The ‘undefinable’ “it” factor is not out of reach, and does not defy description. This is good news, because until you can describe what comprises good leadership, you’ll be limited in your ability to grow yourself as a leader, and you will struggle to select and develop leaders in your organization – often without results.

Much has been done to describe leadership over the past quarter century based on competencies, loosely defined as “skills and abilities.” We have myriad models describing the competencies of a leader.  Competencies certainly can have value, and have driven the development of training programs, degree programs, and books that have grown up around the topic. However, colossal leadership failures in recent history (Enron, Tyco, Madoff, others) have challenged our conception of leadership, suggesting that perhaps competencies are not enough. It is difficult to describe and measure leadership well, but it can be done. There is a name for the “it” factor. It’s called character.

Great Leadership: Defined — Then Developed

Further, character can be described, and therefore can be measured. I’ve heard it said that character is difficult to develop. While true, this is only part of the story. I’ll agree that it’s not easy, but to say categorically that it is difficult lets us off the hook too easily. It’s more useful to look at why it is not easy and/or what is difficult about developing character. The same challenge that defies executives in defining the “it” factor is the chief difficulty that stops most people from effectively developing their leadership character. They stop short of a rigorous description of what it means to be a leader, so their efforts are diluted by an ineffective description, or in many cases, a failure to describe it at all (“I know it when I see it” is not a description).

What Does It Mean, Really?

By character, do you mean “honesty,” or “integrity,” and “perseverance?”

Yes, these are key aspects of any model of character. We also need to think carefully about character in the context of leadership, and what other attributes contribute to great leadership. We need to challenge ourselves to look through a broader and yet targeted lens at those attributes that are evidenced in a leader that actively pursues leading well. “Leading” in this context does not simply mean charging ahead or being first. Leadership in this sense of the word is about creating the space in which others can achieve great things. When looking at the character of a leader, we are seeking to understand who they are that influences others, not simply what they do.

Adding The “How To”

Even with a useful description of leadership, we are still left with the question, “How do you develop the character needed for great leadership?” Here we have to look to the body of knowledge around development. There is much written on the topic, and at the risk of oversimplifying, I will lay out three straightforward steps that can be taken:

  1. Increase awareness of leadership. Awareness in this sense occurs at two levels:  First, awareness is a recognition that leadership is describable and learnable. Unless we are willing to distinguish poor leadership from mediocre leadership and great leadership from mediocre, then we have not even arrived at a basic level of awareness of how leaders can influence the world around them.  Second, leaders can build self-awareness of their own leadership character. Who are you as a leader, and what unique gifts do you bring to your organization? As self-awareness increases in the context of an awareness of what it means to be a great leader, powerful possibilities emerge.
  2. Increase understanding of great leadership. Leaders can spend time educating themselves about what it means to be a great leader. Further study of great leadership against the backdrop of general awareness and self-awareness can help to focus the direction of development efforts. This can take the form of independent study, course work, training programs, well-chosen mentors and coaches, and observation.
  3. Practice the disciplines of great leadership. This is where change happens. Through focused coaching, well-considered action, and on-the-court practice of leadership, leaders grow. It’s important to remember that practice done correctly is comprised of the right lessons applied in the right way to real issues of import. So application of what you learn is essential, and it is important to carefully think through how you apply those lessons. As we are reminded by Warren Buffett: “Practice makes permanent — not perfect.” It is perfect practice that makes positive changes permanent.

Enter Tilt 360. The Tilt Leadership Model describes the essence of leadership in everyday, actionable language. The Character of a leader as described by Tilt includes 48 Commendable Traits which comprise 12 Core Leadership Strengths. These 12 Core Leadership Strengths make up four Meta Factors: Humanity, Courage, Wisdom, and Resilience. It is through balance and mastery in these dimensions of leadership that one can intentionally develop character towards greatness as a leader.

The Choice

Developing your character is ultimately a choice that then informs a series of purposeful choices and actions. The question is: are you leading fully?

Choose well.

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  1. Beth Pisculli Says: November 30th, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    I enjoyed your article Patrick – I have recommended your blog to several corporate leaders I am currently coaching.

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