Critical skills for being a great leader

October 18, 2013 

Leadership can be an incredibly hard concept to define and an even harder quality to learn. There are some who argue that great leaders are born, but I have always believed that you can learn and develop the necessary skills through hard work and experience. -- James Caan

It is amazing to me that so many people think of themselves as great leaders but do not demonstrate leadership qualities. Being an owner or a boss does not make you a leader, as true leadership is not about the position you hold but the attributes you display. People follow leaders because they want to, not because they have to.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have attended a leadership award function and been shocked by the results. It was beyond me how the winner was selected given their lack of basic leadership skills.

James Caan made the case for four elements of leadership, and I completely agree with him. These elements often overlap, so there will be times when you see two are working together to address one problem.

In chemistry, we have the Periodic Table of Elements, which defines all matter as combinations of 112 to 118 basic elements. In leadership, our table of basic elements is made up of only four.

The first element is confidence. For me, this is where it starts because who would ever want to follow someone who does not demonstrate confidence? This is more than just putting on a confident face. I have seen so-called

"leaders" using a mask of confidence to hide their insecurities, but they are unsuccessful since the staff quickly sees through this veil.

People naturally want to follow individuals who can articulate the direction they need to go and show confidence in their decisions. I have yet to see a true leader who did not radiate confidence.

The second element of leadership is decisiveness. A leader must be willing to make decisions and able to stand behind those decisions. Just look at the number of business owners who, when the economy tumbled in 2008, did nothing. The true leaders, in contrast, took action to preserve their businesses.

The third element is intuition. This one is important since the majority of decisions a leader must make involve more than just the black-and-white numbers. Experience, knowledge and intuition - or that gut feeling - are also factors.

A decision-maker who relies only on facts and numbers is just not going to be as successful as a leader who understands there is much more to be considered. The successful leader lets his or her intuition guide them. For example, when I am helping entrepreneurs or managers address a problem in their business, I am always able to come up with a solution quickly. I cannot fully say where exactly that solution comes from, but I know intuition is a major contributor.

The last element of true leadership is empathy. A leader's real job is understanding their staff and knowing how to motivate them. This would not be possible without empathy.

Too often you see managers trying to lead by saying, "I am the boss, so you are going to do what I tell you to do." This is bullying, not leading, and no one wants to be around a bully for long.

Being empathetic is not being soft. Rather, it is understanding your staff's human condition, recognizing the challenges in their lives and being kind. When a leader shows empathy for the difficulties his or her staff is facing, they earn the dedication and loyalty of their team.

Now go out and make sure that you have the four elements -- confidence, decisiveness, intuition and empathy -- as part of your leadership manifest. If you find you are lacking one of these elements, arrange for some coaching to help you develop it.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. He can be reached by email at

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