What Does a Great Leader Look Like?

I have been fortunate enough to sit under a few great leaders in my lifetime, and it has been a goal of mine that as my influence grows, to try and emulate them as much as possible.

King piece in chess
Photo Credit: FMG2008 via Compfight cc

One of the great leaders I’ve had the privilege of meeting is my former boss and mentor Seth Barnes. Seth hired me a year after I graduated from college and was the first person to call me a writer.

In fact, he hired me to help him figure out how to use blogging to grow the brand of his organization. Social media had just become a new trend, and he was certain that the future of online marketing lay in great storytelling. He was right.

What ensued was a seven-year apprenticeship not only in marketing, but in writing, business, and leadership. I am forever grateful for the opportunities he gave me, and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t use a skill I learned from him or as a result of his hiring me.

So when I think of leadership, of what it takes to be an influencer, I think of Seth, and I do my best to mimic him. What I learned from him is that a great leader is generous — but not always in the ways we think.

Here are three lessons I learned from him.

Great leaders share their time

Remarkable influencers give their time and talent, almost recklessly, away. Seth’s philosophy of this was simple: keep showing up in people’s lives, and eventually you will win them over.

Leadership isn’t about charisma or any special personality traits; it’s just about showing up. [Tweet that]

The challenge, though, is that you can’t be generous to everyone. If you are a person of influence, someone who merits the attention of others, chances are that the supply of your time won’t meet the demand. So what do you do?

Seth had a saying — “go with the goers” — and the way he practiced it was by being available to any young men who showed great potential. When he spoke into their lives and they responded, he took the relationship, and his investment in their lives, a level deeper.

Great leaders share what they know

Leadership is not only about sharing your time. It also requires opening up about your past, giving insight into processes that otherwise could only be learned through experience.

This is difficult, because it requires a certain amount of humility and vulnerability. You have to be willing to “go there,” talking about your failures and the things you could’ve done better.

Surprisingly, many leaders struggle to do this. They are driven more by ego than a desire to serve, and because of this reluctance, their influence is limited. A great leader understands that wisdom is only powerful when shared with someone else.

Great leaders share their power

It’s not enough to share your time and knowledge. To give away wisdom without providing the context to apply it is not leadership. It’s advising. And there’s great value to being an advisor; it’s just not all a leader does.

Great leaders understand the law of legacy, that on their own they can only be so good. They know what makes them great is not them, but what they leave behind. So what determines the success of a leader is their ability to invest in others and multiply themselves.

This means more than making little mini-me versions of yourself. It’s about helping others fail faster than you’ve done so they can get to success even faster. And this, dear leader, is your legacy.

Your greatness is directly related to your ability to let go of your own power and authority.

So how do you put this together?

When I think back to how Seth intentionally raised me up to be a leader, I can see a design that was hard to recognize at the time (which may have been his intent all along).

Nonetheless, now I see how he affirmed something in me that I struggled to embrace — my passion for writing — and gave me challenges that would cause me to grow. At times, it felt frustrating, but now I understand why he did it.

There will come a time for every leader when the student must go out on his own. In fact, this is an essential part of apprenticeship — the understudy must leave the master’s shop and go in search of his own personal greatness. At which point, he eventually proves himself and starts the process all over again.

Which is another way of saying leadership is about multiplication. And how, exactly, do you begin such a process? By doing what Seth did:

  1. Notice something special in someone else (or just plain notice them as a person).
  2. Affirm gifts and talents as you see them develop.
  3. Empower and entrust others, giving them opportunity to fail, learn, and eventually succeed.

If you do those three simple things, you will be surprised by how quickly people are attracted to you and how much they will grow as a result of knowing you. And you will be, whether you realize it or not, a leader.

(By the way, the next class of Tribe Writers, which is all about using your words to become an online influencer, opens in a week.)

What do you think a great leader looks like? Share in the comments.