GUEST COMMENTARY: A look at what makes a leader

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 | 1:21 p.m. CDT; updated 12:59 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 30, 2010

We increasingly demand individual rights, opportunities and responsibilities while seeking leadership. When our lives reach a critical stage, we seek leaders and leadership. The Gulf oil spill crisis is an example.

Leaders and leadership are common elements in our lives. While we use the words leader and leadership, do we know their meaning?

Leaders and leadership conjure images in our minds, i.e. political leaders, religious leaders, educational leaders, cultural leaders, business leaders, citizen leaders, leaders in the professions, formal and informal leaders, anointed and self-appointed leaders.   The word "leader" is embedded in a kaleidoscope that can be viewed from many perspectives.

The more complex our lives, the more we believe we need leaders. In many instances, one leader is insufficient. Leader as a title is different from leadership as a practice. Leadership looks different in different contexts. One type of leadership does not fit every situation. There are many factors we must consider when we think of leaders. The term conjures up names including Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, Pope Benedict XVI, Kobe Bryant and Barack Obama.

Because leadership is varied and looks different depending on the context, we must learn to recognize and make the best use of it. Expectations help in enabling us to use leaders and leadership. We should expect different attributes from a mayor than a business leader or a military leader. We should expect attributes that are appropriate for each context.  

There are attributes that we expect of all leaders. They are: vision, integrity, morality, determination, discipline, courage, action, analytical and problem-solving skills, involvement, ability to delegate and accountability.

There are more attributes that we want a leader to have:

  • A willingness to serve their presumed followers.
  • An understanding of the needs and aspirations of their followers.
  • The ability to communicate their own aspirations and understand their own needs and best interests and to make their followers' goals, and their own, mutual and transparent.
  • The ability to research and plan programs addressing issues confronting their followers while communicating and educating them.

Functional leadership is less like Moses and more like Jesus.

An important aspect of leadership is the power potential. It is important that the power is maximized for the benefit of followers. Leadership opportunities shouldn't be squandered.

Each of us is a closet leader whose leadership potential is waiting to be unleashed. Our fate is in our hands. We are the leaders of our fate.

Quotes: "Leadership is the ability to get extraordinary achievement from ordinary people." — Brian Tracy

"I dream of men who take the next step instead of worrying about the next thousand steps." — Theodore Roosevelt

William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeritus at MU.

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