What Is Leadership? Here’s What The World’s Best Leaders Say

Katie Horne
Last Updated on October 20, 2020
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 leadership. noun. the action of leading a group of people or an organization; the state or position of being a leader.

If you looked up the word leadership in a dictionary, you will likely find a definition similar to the one we provided above. If you took things a step further and asked people what leadership means, you are likely to get as many answers as the number of people you ask.

  • Stephen Covey: “Leadership is a choice that lies in the space between stimulus and response.”
  • Chris Hadfield: “Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”
  • Lisa Cash Hanson: “Leadership is the ability to guide others without force into a direction or decision that leaves them still feeling empowered and accomplished.”
  • Sheryl Sandberg: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

As you can see, there are many facets of leadership, both descriptive (e.g., “leadership is . . . “) and normative (e.g., “leadership should be . . . “).

In this article, we will take a closer look at:

  • Leadership and its principles
  • The qualities and traits we’d expect to find in a good leader
  • What the future holds for leadership in general

You’ll learn how to apply the principles of leadership to your daily life, regardless of whether you are leading a Fortune 500 company or your family.

Variety in Leadership Principles

“Principles are ways of successfully dealing with reality to get what you want out of life.” – Ray Dalio

Principles are the bedrock foundation that your leadership will be built on. They will enable you to navigate your world in a successful and satisfying way and create the impact you desire.

What are your principles?

To inspire you and help you grow in leadership ability, we’re offering this list of leadership principles.

This list draws on well-established principles held by effective leaders and organizations like Steve Jobs, Ray DalioAmazon, and the U.S. Marine Corps.

Try using them as a creative springboard for creating your own principles, which we’ll cover in the next section.

Video: Top business leaders, like fashion designer Tom Ford, have remarkably high standards. How does such a leader keep perfectionism in check, though? One clue may be to balance it with the need to deliver reliably. If your high standards are causing you to push deadlines back or cancel projects or events, it’s time to reassess your priorities and rebalance your principles.

  • Set the example: The U.S. Marines defines this as: “Be physically fit, well groomed, and correctly dressed. Maintain an optimistic outlook. Develop the will to win.” How might business leaders define setting an example?
  • Be proficient in your field. “Respect is the reward of the Marine who shows competence.” – from U.S. Marines Leadership Principles.
  • Ownership: Define what a sense of ownership might mean for leaders.
  • Know yourself and seek improvement: This comes from the U.S. Marine Corps but self awareness and continual personal growth are commonly held leadership principles. How does lack of self-awareness stunt a leader’s growth? Amazon lists the growth principle as “Learn and be curious.”
  • Know your team members: What are their strengths and weaknesses? Why is this important? Ray Dalio pairs people based on the their strengths and weaknesses: he might pair someone who is creative and unreliable with someone who is reliable but uncreative.
  • Postpone judgment and listen deeply: Bob Kulhan sometimes refers to this principle as “Yes, and . . .  ” That’s shorthand for being open to new ideas and actions and questioning the assumptions at hand.
  • Focus on what matters: From Steve Jobs: “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.
  • Innovate and simplify: Amazon uses “invent and simplify.” Simplicity and innovation were emphasized by Steve Jobs.
  • Learn from failures. Ray Dalio: “I started to look at problems like puzzles that would give me gems if I could solve the puzzle. The puzzle was what would I do differently in the future, and the gems were principles that I would write down for doing something different in the future so that I don’t make the same mistakes again . . . “
  • Insist on the highest standards: The best leaders have very high standards
  • Bias for Action Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is known for his differentiation between decisions that can be made quickly and those that need extended analysis. Amazon’s Principles state: “Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.”
  • Know how to effectively drive change
  • Energy and attitude are choices:  This principle is advocated for by Bob Kulhan, CEO of Business Improv.
  • Keep your team informed: This principle is advocated for by many, including the Marines who find it promotes “efficiency and morale” and helps team members do their job “intelligently.” Some business leaders — like Ray Dalio — advocate for “radical transparency.” This includes having a system where people can put honest thoughts on the table and engage in thoughtful disagreement. It includes protocols for getting past disagreement.

Video: Tony Robbins defines leadership as being a person of influence. He emphasizes the need to destroy the artificial limitations that your thinking patterns may impose on your leadership potential. 

Create Your Own Principles

Hopefully the examples we provided offered some inspiration from which you can use to start drafting your own set of principles.

You can have as many (or as few) principles as you’d like. They can be simple or complex. And they’ll likely change over time.

Video: Ready to create your own principles? This free 8-part animated video series by Ray Dalio will guide you on your adventure. Dalio, the author of Principles, is a billionaire investor, successful hedge fund manager, and philanthropist. 

The Traits, Qualities, and Characteristics of a Good Leader

We’ve spent some time covering the principles of good leadership, but what about the leaders themselves? What makes a good leader? What traits, qualities, and characters should someone have to succeed as a leader?

Like the principles underpinning leadership, the opinions on what makes a good leader are just as varied.

Leaders “make the hard choice, and self-sacrifice in order to enhance the lives of others around them,” according to Joel Farar of the Farar Law Group.

Video: Bob Kulhan, CEO of Business Improv, explains his “Yes, and . . . ” principle.

Kimberly Fries, a millennial communication and leadership coach, includes integrity, loyalty, and decisiveness (among other traits) in her list of 8 Essential Qualities that Define Great Leadership.

Peter Economy argues that the “best leaders exhibit certain traits that make them hugely successful,” including the following five:

  1. Clarity — good leaders are clear and concise at all times
  2. Decisiveness — good leaders make up their minds and do not hesitate to commit
  3. Courage — good leaders are bold and fearless
  4. Passion — good leaders care about what they do
  5. Humility — good leaders are humble, admit wrong, and use criticism to help drive personal growth

As you can see, there are many traits a good leader can (and should) have. Cultivating these could easily be a lifelong project!

Video: “A leader is not someone who sits a certain place or acts a certain way, but is a person who is willing, able and entrusted to articulate, embody and help realize a story of possibility for a group of people at a point in time.” Gianpiero Petriglieri, program director at INSEAD, provides a rich and succinct definition of leadership.

Developing Your Leadership Skills

As we mentioned in the section above, cultivating all the traits that a good leader ought to have could easily be a lifelong project. Nevertheless, we think that doing is likely to yield benefits to numerous to mention. And, as the old adage goes, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is today.” We feel the same way about leadership skills development.

So with that said, how do you go about developing your leadership skills?

A Caveat

Before we proceed, we want to note that anyone can learn leadership skills. Yes, some people seem to be born natural leaders, but if that isn’t you, don’t despair. Learning leadership skills might be more challenging for you, but with the right tools and the right attitude, you can make a lot of progress.

Learning the Leadership Skills You Need

One of the first things you should consider doing is figuring out your leadership style. Everyone has a slightly different style, and though no test can be nuanced enough to identify each and every trait that makes up your overall style, the generalizations are sufficient to point you in the right direction when it comes to choosing resources, working with your strengths and weaknesses, and so on.

Some options that you might consider include:

Video: When knocked down by failure, successful leaders get back up again — quickly. Find out why Barbara Corcoran believes “insecurity is a wonderful motivator.” (Watch this second video to find out why “Failure and innovation are kissing cousins.”)

Planning Your Learning Around Your Leadership Style

Now that you know what kind of leader you are, as well as what might be your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll know what skills you should focus on as you seek out the appropriate resources.

For example, let’s say that USC’s Leadership Style Quiz identifies you as a transformational leader:

Transformational leaders foster curiosity in their teams and work as agents of change. They work together to improve conditions and achieve goals. Inspiration and cooperation drive transformational leaders toward positive change.

However, after reading an in-depth explanation of this leadership type, perhaps you realize that while you are communicative, you aren’t necessarily the most effective communicator.

As such, courses, books, articles, and other resources on improving your effective communication skills would be a good starting point.

We do want to note that part of this planning process involves identifying both skills that you are strong in, as well as those where you are lacking. It can be tempting to focus and work on traits where you are strong — and there is definitely room for that, since everyone always has room for improvement — but we recommend focusing on weaknesses first.

Video: Today’s requirements for innovation and speed trump the industrial era’s sole focus on efficiency. Charlene Li, Founder of Altimeter Group, explains why command and control hierarchies are out and why leaders must find ways to harvest the best ideas from insightful employees who reside at the intersections of digital change.

Leaders Are Readers

According to President Harry S. Truman, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”

Regardless of whether you agree with Truman, it is undeniable that books are a great place to learn what you need to know to become an effective leader. Furthermore, President Truman appears to not be alone in his voracious reading habits:

  • President Thomas Jefferson: After the 1815 burning of the U.S. Capitol destroyed the 3,000 books in the Library of Congress, Jefferson offered to replace those lost with his personal library of between “9 and 10,000 volumes.” Jefferson had famously stated, “I cannot live without books.”
  • German political philosopher and political theorist, Hannah Arendt (famous for her insights into totalitarianism of the 20th century) amassed a library of “4,000 volumes, ephemera and pamphlets”.
  • American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who founded Hearst Communications in 1887, acquired two libraries that, together, contain over 7,000 books.

Now, you might look at the anecdotes above and wonder if reading is still important for the leaders of today.

It is.

Gain the Knowledge Advantage

Warren Buffet and Mark Cuban agree that regular reading is the key to success, with Cuban reading upwards of three hours per day and Buffet reading five to six hours per day.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, spends at least an hour a day reading and argues that “every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently.”

While you do not need to mimic the reading lists of the greatest leaders, gaining a knowledge advantage can only help you as you improve your leadership skills.

Books for Leaders: A Starter List

These 8 books will expand your thinking about leadership and inspire you to accelerate your growth.

getting things done david allen

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
Author: David Allen

This best-seller has brought peace of mind and stress relief — along with boosted productivity — to millions.

Much of the appeal of GTD is in the quality of life it brings.

Buy the book and do the short exercise described near the beginning. You’ll be amazed at the peaceful state it produces.

Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevantblue ocean strategy book
Authors: W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne

Strategic thinking is a crucial leadership skill. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more important book on strategy than this one.

The foundation of blue ocean strategy is “value innovation.” “[I]nstead of focusing on beating the competition, you focus on making the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for buyers and for your company . . . ” write the authors.

In the book, you’ll learn about their unconventional — and brilliant — Blue Ocean Leadership approach.

Explore the Blue Ocean Strategy website, the online Blue Ocean Academy, and consider picking up Blue Ocean Shift, the 2017 follow-up to the original book.

Video: The Blue Ocean Strategy website offers many supplemental resources for applying the strategic concepts outlined in the books. 

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’tgood to great book
Author: Jim Collins

Collins’s book popularized his concept of Level 5 Leadership, leadership characterized by a high level of self-awareness and an ambitiousness for the company and others, rather than self.

Some of the research performed by the CEO Genome Project has buttressed Collins’s earlier leadership research.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People7 habits highly effective people
Author: Stephen Covey

“Begin with the end in mind,” “Synergize,” and “Think win-win” are three of the well-known habits that Covey popularized in this perennial best-seller.

“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is,” wrote Covey. “Treat a man as he can and should be and
he will become as he can and should be.”

principles ray dalioPrinciples
Author:Ray Dalio

Billionaire investor Ray Dalio contends that “Whatever success I’ve had in life hasn’t been because of anything unique about me—it’s because of principles that I believe anyone can adopt.”

In this book, Dalio shares his unconventional principles for success which hinge on “radical truth” and “radical transparency.”

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Actionstart with why simon sinek
Author: Simon Sinek

Everyone needs a why. Simon Sinek suggests that being able to communicate why is at the heart of being able to influence others to commit to a mission.

Not sure what your “why” is? Don’t fret. Pick up Sinek’s companion book: Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Boxleadership and self-deception
Author: The Arbinger Insitute

The thesis of this book is that self-deception (or lack of self-awareness) is at the heart of most personal conflicts and organizational problems.

Exaggerating others’ faults and our own virtues are two elements of this self-deception.

The book’s  thesis is that “the key to leadership lies not in what we do but in who we are.”

Video: The Arbinger Institute outlines some key concepts in the popular book.

The Future of Leadership

The velocity of social and technological change directly impacts the way leadership. How might leadership change in the future?

There is kind of a circular process by which leaders affect the future and the future effects leaders.

We may get one glimpse of the future via four leader types who will have a major impact on the world, according to Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company:

  1. The Learning Zealot: “[T]he most effective leaders are the most insatiable learners. Creative leaders are always asking themselves, ‘Am I learning as fast as the world is changing?'”
  2. The Personal Disruptor: “Leaders who are fit for the future understand when it’s time to disrupt themselves.”
  3. The Tough-Minded Optimist: “The future, [John Gardner] says, ‘is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future. It is created by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much.'”
  4. The Eager Experimenter: “[T]he most exciting breakthroughs are built on the backs of projects that fizzled . . . That’s why leaders who are fit for the future are support lots of ideas . . . to discover the few that will deliver . . . “

The Step-by-Step Leadership Development Guide

We have spent a lot of time talking about what leadership is and how you can work on your leadership skills, and in this section, we will collate the information we provided into a step-by-step guide that you can use as you go about your leadership journey.

  1. Decide on your guiding principles. Principles underlie good leadership. Decide on at least a few principles that will guide you, and write them down. This may begin as a process of discovery at first. Consider leaders you admire. What principles guide them?
  2. Decide how you will measure personal success. Setting up metrics by which you can measure your successes and failures will foster your growth, development, and improvement.
  3. Hone your communication skills. Communication is critical to good leadership. It’s at the center of influence, negotiation, persuasion, and conflict resolution. Ask for candid feedback from those you trust on your communication skills and create a written plan to improve. Explore concepts like active listening and emotional intelligence. And learn how to give concise and persuasive business presentations. If you’re uncomfortable speaking in front of others, join a local Toastmasters International group to acquire experience.
  4. Learn to identify the problems worth solving. The organization or project you are leading has limited resources. Hone your ability to identify problems worth solving and you’ll be more successful and stand out. Tip: Learn everything you can about making data-driven decisions. Search for free or low-cost online courses that will introduce you to this concept. Consider starting with this series of video interviews with Wayne Winston, Professor of Decision Sciences at Indiana State University.
  5. Commit to personal growth and development. Commit to your personal growth and development. Set concrete, measurable goals. Perhaps you want to read (or listen to) ten business books per year. Or maybe you want to attend a leadership retreat on an annual basis. Your goals can be as simple as taking time to reflect on your leadership skills this past week on a weekly basis.

Video: In this excerpt from his Lynda.com interview on analytics, Wayne Winston discusses how Mark Cuban uses analytics to gain an edge in leadership decisions for the Mavericks. Winston is a professor of decision sciences at the University of Indiana. Cuban is one of his former students.

Frequently Asked Questions

If I’m interviewing for a leadership position, what are some questions I should be prepared to answer?

Some commonly-asked questions posed to future leaders include:

  • Tell us about your leadership competencies.
  • What experience relevant to this role do you have?
  • What leadership responsibilities do you have in your current position?
  • Tell us about a time you assumed a leadership position. What happened?
  • What were some of the challenges you’ve faced in the past? How did you handle them?
  • How do you see yourself leading the team/business/company?

What’s the difference between leadership and management?

We will defer to Peter F. Drucker in answering this question: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Stephen Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People concurs, offering the following anecdote to distinguish between management and leadership:

You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.

The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies, and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.

The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!”

Conclusion

True leadership is not about acquiring power over others or prestige. It’s not about presiding over activities from a comfortable distance.

True leadership begins with knowledge of, and mastery of, ourselves. It grows with self-awareness and inherent “teachability.” And it often requires stepping into roles before we feel fully ready.

Built on principles and a foundation of ethics, true leadership charts a course toward a worthy goal and closes the gap by drawing out the greatest potential in others.

What will you do in 2019 to become the leader you were always meant to be?

The first step can be to explore some of these resources for entrepreneurs:

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Contributing Editor: Sherrie Gossett

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