Leadership can be a difficult characteristic to understand. What qualities make someone a good leader? Do those same qualities translate to all aspects of life, or can a person successfully lead a sports team, but fail in the boardroom? Are leaders born or can anyone inspire others to follow them?
I won’t pretend to know the answers to these questions and I doubt that many people do. But when I think about what it takes to be an effective leader, I am invariably reminded of late summer conversations with my grandfather on the deck of his home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. We would discuss anything from the current state of Red Sox Nation to the most effective technique for shucking the cherrystone clams we collected earlier that day. But, on occasion, the discussion would drift towards more business-oriented topics and I got a free lesson in leadership studies from one of the very best.
To provide a little background, Don Davis, my grandfather, left a distinguished career in corporate America in 1988 to pursue his “retirement” as a professor at MIT's Leaders for Global Operations program. During his 22-year tenure at the school, he shared the lessons he learned from his time in business and inspired more than a few of today’s most influential leaders.
As I am sure any of his former students will tell you, it would be near impossible to boil all of his lessons down into a single blog post. Fortunately, those same students were kind enough to compile a Memory Book after he passed away in order to share some of his most important teachings, namely the leadership mantras that were core to his curriculum. Here are the 20 mantras below along with some insight from those Martha’s Vineyard discussions.
For a more personal explanation of how these mantras helped various students succeed in business, you can find the Memory Book in its entirety here. And for a visual reminder of the 20 mantras, scroll to the end of this post.
1) Leaders don’t choose their followers. Followers choose their leaders.
One cannot simply choose to lead a group of people. You may be a leader in title, but you’re not a legitimate leader if your followers do not believe in you and your vision.
2) Followers choose leaders they trust, respect, and feel comfortable with.
If you don’t have the trust and respect of your followers, how are you supposed to make the connection necessary to inspire them to achieve great things?
3) Be yourself. The number of leadership styles is limitless.
There is no scientific formula for what makes a good leader, only a belief in your own ability as well as the ability of your followers to be successful.
4) Leaders need a base of power and authority but the more they use it, the less there is left.
Needless to say, effective leadership requires a certain amount of authority. Like most forms of capital, that power is finite. Use it sparingly and only when necessary.
5) The best leadership is based on persuasion.
Anyone can have a vision. Leaders have the ability to persuade others to believe in their vision.
6) Leaders set the ethical standards and tone of their organizations by their behavior.
As a leader you set the example. Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want printed on the cover of the New York Times. Your followers are avid readers.
7) Integrity is the bedrock of effective leadership. Only you can lose your integrity.
Unethical behavior is a slippery slope. Avoid the slope at all costs because everyone slips.
8) “Selfship” is the enemy of leadership.
A true leader cares more about the success of his/her followers than their own success.
9) Be quick to praise, but slow to admonish. Praise in public, but admonish in private.
If you’re going to praise someone, do it big. If you’re going to reprimand, make sure it is warranted and do so in a respectful manner.
10) One of a leader’s key responsibilities is stamping out self-serving politics when they emerge.
As a leader, your job is to inspire the entire group. No single person is bigger than the group, not even the leader.
11) Be sure to know as much as possible about the people you are leading.
How can you inspire someone if you don’t know what motivates them?
12) One manages things, but people lead people.
It may be a bit cliché, but at the end of the day, followers are human beings. Don’t lose sight of that reality.
13) Diversity in an organization is not only legally required and socially desired, it’s effective.
Every problem, obstacle, or issue has a different solution. Different perspectives make it much easier to identify the right solution.
14) Leadership should be viewed as stewardship.
Leader and teacher are synonyms, even if the Thesaurus tool in Microsoft Word doesn’t agree.
15) Don’t make tough decisions until you need to. Most will solve themselves with time.
Procrastination isn’t always a negative tendency. Don’t jump to conclusions. Sometimes you just have to give the problem time to work itself out.
16) When making decisions about people, listen to your gut.
Believe in your ability to identify the right talent. It’s your vision, so you should be able to recognize when a person embodies that vision.
17) People can see through manipulation and game-playing. Everyone can spot a phony.
This goes back to the mutual respect and trust that must exist between a leader and follower. Don’t undermine that mutual respect via manipulation. You’ll lose followers.
18) Learn to say out loud “I was wrong” and “I don’t know.”
You may be a leader, but you’re not omniscient. Don’t pretend to be.
19) If you know a plan or decision is wrong, don’t implement it. Instead, keep talking.
Don’t try to jam a square peg in a circular hole. Work with your team to figure out a way to round the edges of the peg so it fits properly.
20) Each of us has potential to lead, follow, or be an individual contributor.
Potential is limitless and everyone has the ability to contribute to the success of a particular vision. It all depends on how strongly they believe in that vision.
There is no recipe for what makes a good leader, but these mantras can provide valuable guidelines. I wouldn't trade those talks on the deck for anything.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in January 2015 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.