What Makes a Great Leader?

I often get asked about what makes a great leader.  I used to try and cover all the aspects of the complex and dynamic art of leadership.  Now, I often just answer with a simple phrase: they lead themselves first.

In most cases, great leaders were leading themselves long before anyone put them in a position of leading others.  The people who get promoted to leadership roles are the ones that become leaders long before someone gives them the title.  There are many ways that people lead themselves, but I’ve tried to capture the essence of what good self-leaders do in these four steps.

Set the Pace

Dwight D. Eisenhower illustrated the art of leadership by placing a string on a table and saying, “If you pull it, it will follow you anywhere but if you try to push it, it will go nowhere.”  Leadership is about being in front and moving differently than others. It’s about deciding where you want to go and then going there with a sense of purpose. If you’re sure of your goals and are moving toward them, you are leading yourself in a way others will quickly notice.  It’s impossible to lead from behind. Decide what’s most important to you and start working toward it. Others will soon start looking for ways to follow and support your efforts.

Become the Person You Would Follow

This may be the hardest concept to execute.  Consider this question: Would I follow me?  If the answer is no, we have work to do.  It’s not about being perfect or making all the right choices.  It is about challenging yourself every day to become the person you would respect, admire, and follow.  There are too many leaders who spend most of their time creating the public perception of who they want to be rather than working to actually become that person.

Learn Continuously

Things change fast and if you keep using the same solutions over and over, soon they won’t work.  The most dangerous leaders I have ever been around are the ones who already think they have all the answers.  Leaders like that stop learning and stop listening. Leaders who can overcome their own challenges by learning more, applying new thought processes, and constantly consider new ideas will be able to successfully address new obstacles in their path.  Keep pushing yourself with new challenges. Find things you are scared to do, and do them. Every time you take a step like that, you acquire a new way of thinking. Soon, there are fewer and fewer things that you can’t handle or don’t have experience with.  Others around you will watch you learning and will soon begin to do that for themselves. That’s real leadership.

Inspire Yourself

It’s been said that much of leadership is about inspiring others.  That’s impossible to do if you can’t inspire yourself. If you can’t point to something that matters to you enough to commit to it, work hard for it, and suffer multiple failures before you achieve it, then don’t expect anyone else to get excited about it either.  Leadership is often about envisioning a better future and being willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Make certain that you frame your own vision in a way that compels and inspires you. Then you’ll have what it takes to connect others to that same vision.  That, above anything else, will make them change their own behavior and set out in a new direction. That’s the essence of leadership.

Many leaders are placed in positions of power before they have mastered the art of self-leadership.  These leaders usually don’t last. Leading yourself is the most difficult thing that you do every day.  It’s the only thing that will help you achieve your own goals and then understand how to help others do that for themselves.  Great leaders inspire commitment, not just compliance. Compliance is what bosses get. When you create commitment for yourself, you learn how to help others find their own passion.  When you lead yourself first, you’ve already become a great leader. Then, in time, others in your veterinary practice will follow your lead.

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