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Sep 01 2017
Becoming an Extraordinary Leader
DeAnna Leahy, CCE, Sunroc Corporation
In The Handbook for Leaders, 24 Lessons for Extraordinary Leadership, John Zenger, and Joseph Folkman argue, "Great leaders are not defined by the absence of weakness, but rather by the presence of clear strengths. The key to developing great leadership is to build strengths." Exceptional leaders do not get where they are by being perfect; they get there by doing a small number of things exceptionally well.

So, where do great leaders come from? Warren G. Bennis once said that "The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born - that there is a genetic factor to leadership. Myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That's nonsense. In fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born." It begins with the belief that ordinary managers can become extraordinary because that belief can make a big difference in an individual becoming a successful leader. It is true that some people are born with more self-confidence, intellect, and charisma than other people, but that does not guarantee that they will be an exceptional leader. It certainly gives them more of an advantage, but leadership can also be developed. With a lot of practice and a little bit of effort, each one of us can improve the skills that we are born with so that we can become an outstanding leader.

An extraordinary leader's influence can be extremely powerful on any organization. We have all had "good" leaders, but how many times can you think of a truly "great" leader? John H. Zenger and Joseph Folkman assert that "Extraordinary leaders...consistently achieve results that far exceed those of the good leaders." So, what does it take to become a great leader? I think that we often fall into the trap of feeling as if being good is good enough. That we are not capable of achieving even more. There is a saying by an unknown author that says, "If better is possible, good is not enough." To achieve greatness, we constantly need to push for improvement. Great leaders will continue to build on their skill even after they have already reached an acceptable level of performance.

In The Handbook for Leaders, Zenger and Folkman talk about the leadership "tent." They compare the poles of the tent to the strengths of the individual leader. These five tent poles make a huge difference between being a good leader and being a great leader. They are:

  1. Character
  2. Personal capabilities
  3. Focus on results
  4. Interpersonal skills
  5. Leading organizational change

It is critical for a leader to become competent in all five of these leadership areas. The main, or center pole, is character. Character is the heart of leadership. Dave Ulrich said, "Everything about great leadership radiates from character.Great leaders follow through on commitments and always keep their word. They also make decisions with the good of the whole organization in mind rather than a personal agenda.

The next pole is personal capabilities. These skills must be in place for an individual to become a strong leader. Some examples of these capabilities can include:

  • Technical knowledge
  • Product knowledge
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Professional skills
  • Innovation
  • Initiative
  • Effective use of information technology 

These capabilities should be continuously developed. All too often leaders reach a position and assume that they are done learning. However, the best leaders never quit learning.

The third pole of the tent is a focus on results. The best managers can translate ideas into action. They can establish stretch goals for their people, and set lofty targets for them to achieve. They operate with speed and intensity to hasten the pace of the group. They have the ability to initiate new programs and projects, as well as balance long-term and short-term objectives.

The fourth tent pole is the ability to cultivate interpersonal skills. A leader must be able to communicate powerfully and prolifically, as well as inspire others to high performance. Top leaders need to act in such a way that they inspire trust from others. It is also imperative to support the growth of the individual members of their team. To collaborate and develop strong teams, a strong leader will involve others in communication and not insulate themselves from the team members. The best leaders want to develop others and train everyone on the team to be a leader.

The fifth and final tent pole is the ability to lead organizational change. Most organizations are in a constant state of change. Leaders must be able to guide their teams in new directions. To do this, the leader should provide strong direction by getting people involved in making the change work. The effective leader will create a vision for the future, translate that vision into an objective, and build support for their vision by getting people involved.