Leadership – what is it really?

What Makes a Great Leader

At first glance, business leadership looks like it’s simply a matter of style. But when you get to the core of it, leadership isn’t about style at all. It’s about substance. Vision, action, and spirit — these comprise the essence of leadership. They have nothing to do with style and everything to do with substance. The substance of leadership consists of knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, and influencing others to achieve it.

The style of leadership is largely a matter of personality. There are quiet, low-key leaders as well as aggressive, charismatic leaders, and an infinite variety in between. How effective they are depends on how well they carry out the substance of leadership. Don’t mistake style for spirit. Style is superficial. Style doesn’t create any vision, doesn’t get anything done… it just looks good — or bad. The substance of leadership, however, can be acquired and learned.

It’s not enough to just acknowledge my need to be a leader, you might be saying — what, exactly, does it involve? Let’s look first at what I consider the six core skills of effective leadership.

6 Core Skills Of Effective Leadership


This is the ability to formulate ideas about the business or parts of the business; to understand opportunities or the need for change; to create a mental picture of what the business will be in the future; and to articulate all of that clearly in words and images.


Being able to see what’s important, to understand the available choices, and to make sound, practical decisions. Discrimination is free-form decision making rather than rule-based decision making. It’s knowing what questions to ask, and being able to answer them in the absence of rules or previous experience.


The ability to see the big picture and devise an effective path — the right actions — that will lead to realizing the vision. Inventing “the rules of your game” and creating your business philosophy and key policies.


This is the determination and energy to follow through and make the vision a reality even in the face of obstacles, opposition, uncertainty, and risk. Without an underlying passion for your vision, commitment is difficult to maintain.


This is the skill of communicating vision and strategy, and being able to infuse the organization with enthusiasm, dedication, and some of your own spirit and passion.


This is true leadership greatness, identifying and developing people under you to become future leaders, not followers.

Much has been written about leadership, leadership traits, leadership qualities, and biographies of great leaders are abundant. But defining the skills of leadership is a bit more problematic. While the skills listed here might equally apply to any leader in any situation, I have focused on the needs of a business leader.

And the good news is that through consistent and intentional application these skills can be developed and strengthened by any business leader. The key is not to be “the best” leader out there, but to simply become the best leader you can be. The critical point to keep in mind is that developing leadership skills is a process, not an event — it won’t occur in a week. Or in a month. But it will happen as you apply yourself to these skills in the day-to-day functions of running your business.

What About Character?

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

One might argue that while leadership skills constitute the effectiveness of a leader, character traits determine the quality of the leadership. The idea that character matters is one that runs throughout the literature of leadership. And it would be fair to assume that character matters to you and your employees, as well. While each of us might like to think we are people of good character and possess any number of desirable traits, the question here is what traits or qualities are expected in a good leader?

Keep in mind that it is one thing to develop a skill, even a leadership skill; it is something else altogether to develop character traits. Simply being aware of their existence in our make-up – or lack of them – can be a challenge! However, a number of key traits have been identified over the years that are consistently noted and described as being essential for leadership.

The Top 10 Personality Traits Of Great Leaders

  1. Visionary
  2. Honesty and Integrity
  3. Able to communicate
  4. Inspiring
  5. Dedication
  6. Humility
  7. Open-minded
  8. Creative and Innovative
  9. Assertive and Decisive
  10. Influential

When it comes down to becoming a real leader in your business it is helpful to remember the primary purpose of a leader: to lead others somewhere. Knowing first and foremost where you are going with your business is absolutely essential for being a leader. All the rest becomes a matter of accrued experience. As Antony Jay once said, “The only real training for leadership is leadership.”

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About Strategy & Execution

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