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Leadership is a Choice

“If you ignore the opportunity to lead, you risk turning into a ‘sheepwalker’ – someone who fights to protect the status quo at all costs, never asking if obedience is doing you or your organization any good.”  – Seth Godin, Tribes


There has been a good deal written about leadership, what it is and who exemplifies it. Back in 2011, much of the buzz was generated by Steve Jobs’ decision to step down from the day to day running of Apple for “undisclosed health reasons”. If you wanted to place a picture next to the definition of leadership in the dictionary, Jobs’s would have certainly been a popular choice. As one analyst said at that time, “Jobs is Apple.”

But is leadership a quality that only a few can possess? Is leadership an activity that only a few can perform? The answer is actually No to both questions. Leadership is not a function of position or role that we play, being a manager does not necessarily mean that you are a leader. Just as being a leader does not necessarily mean that you are in a manager role.

Charlie Sheppard, President of Management Communications Systems and the developer of the widely successful training program, Leadership is a Choice, suggests that there are three basic ways people become leaders and they are:

  • Trait Theory – Some personality traits may lead some people naturally into leadership roles. Some traits make it easier to lead, but even those people “born with it” still have to choose to lead. Many “born with it” never make the choice.
  • Great Events Theory – A crisis or important event may cause a person to rise to the occasion, which brings out extraordinary leadership qualities in an ordinary person. The challenge is that once the crisis or important event dissipates, so will the leadership competency. It is not sustainable because the leadership occurred not out of choice, but as a result of an external circumstance.
  • Choice Theory – People choose to become leaders. People learn leadership skills. This is the most common way that people become leaders.

For those of us in the executive coaching and management consulting business we have the opportunity of working with leaders and people who choose to become leaders everyday. Many of the decision makers, business unit leaders, talent managers, business owners, HR Directors, C-level executives are leaders. Many of the individuals we coach for our clients possess some leadership qualities and have chosen a leadership career path. A number of positions that we help our clients fill have “possesses leadership qualities” as criteria for hire.

So, what are those leadership qualities that leaders have and those who choose to become leaders would like to possess?

Jeffrey Fox, NYT best-selling author, suggests five things that leaders should do to demonstrate leadership.

  • Be Visible – Whether you are leading a team, a business unit, a department, a division or a company, you need to be out front, leading the charge and others will follow. Don’t hunker down in your office reading month old reports.
  • Know Your Customers – This means both internal and external. If your company sells product or services you, the leader need to meet your customers and understand what they want, what they are saying about your company, product or service. The same holds true for your internal customers. Make customer service your number one priority.
  • Be Innovative – Don’t stand still. Look for new processes, products, services, markets, technologies that you, your group, department, division or company can either develop, produce, deliver, implement or enhance.
  • Create a Winning Culture – Hire only “A-Players”. Get rid of all mediocre employees. Make sure that you and any one under you making a hiring decision understands what type of person you want to hire and what type of person you don’t want to hire. Don’t let the hiring process stop at the offer acceptance stage. Have a world class on-boarding process that attracts and keeps winners.
  • Train and Support Future Leaders – Think Succession Planning, Leadership Development, Executive Coaching and plan to replace yourself. Foster an atmosphere of success, acknowledge effort, use failures as a learning experience, encourage risk taking, never assess blame. Lead.

Those of you who are leaders may already be doing what Fox suggests and certainly more could be added to the list of leadership qualities. This is just a sample. For those of you who would choose to become leaders, this list is a good place to start and to compare the qualities that you currently possess to identify where you need to improve. Remember leadership can be learned.

Maybe none of us will ever become another Steve Jobs, but as Seth Godin says in Tribes, “We need You to lead us.”

Want to be a leader? It is your choice.

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