What Distinguishes a True Leader?

Someone who can do these four things

Back Web Only Jun 24, 2016 By Barbara Hayes

I am an intrepid student of leadership. I read books on the subject, I seek out speakers who are experts in the field and I admire leaders when I see them in action — and try and take from their repertoire to add to my own. I have been lucky enough to have been surrounded and influenced by true leaders from a very young age and throughout my professional career.

My first leadership role model was the leader of my original tribe of eight, my mother. Not only did she help get six of us into and through college, manage two households and, together with my father’s love of travel, make it possible for us to see most of the U.S., Canada and Europe before we left home, but she did so by engaging all of us in the tasks necessary to make everything happen — we were, most definitely, her direct reports. Our tribe has grown to 26 now, and she remains our leader.

As I began my professional career, the director of the first office I worked in, the Office of Local Development in the California Department of Commerce, surrounded himself with the best and brightest from across the state, then created the vision and goals around which we all worked. We accomplished great things because we were encouraged and empowered to do so.

Related: Would You Like To Work For You? - Putting yourself in your employees’ shoes will make you a better leader

While serving as president and CEO of Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization for nearly 15 years, I got to work with some of the very best leaders in the Sacramento Region. I could write a book on what I learned from these individuals. It was during a meeting in the office of one of the SACTO board chairs, a community college chancellor, that I asked about the eight people featured in large photos hanging on one of his walls. Those, he replied, were his students. He explained that their pictures hung prominently on his wall so he was constantly reminded whom he worked for.

So what makes a person a true leader? What is it that distinguishes these people?

True leaders are smart individuals, with a high level of integrity, and one hopes, a sense of humor, fairness and sincerity. While all of the individuals I cited above exhibit these traits and have influenced my view on leadership, they also posses the ability to do the following:

1. Establish a strategic vision. Leaders must be able to envision a bold future, map out the plan for how to get there and build broad support for implementation.  

2. Communicate. Leaders must be good communicators, both on the receiving and giving ends. Conveying instructions, encouragement and praise, as well as listening to your team and stakeholders is an important component of leadership.

Related: Great Mothers Make Great Leaders

3. Value people. Extraordinary leaders understand that their people are the most important part of the equation for success. Surround yourself with the very best, then educate, empower and encourage them. Good leaders always remember that respect breeds respect.

4. Establish accountability. Great leaders build in accountability for themselves and their team. Success is measured by outcomes and results, not by processes.

If you are lucky enough to have experienced great leadership or be the purveyor of it, you know that it can create a culture of respect and teamwork, and a work environment that is incredibly satisfying and rewarding.

One of my sisters was recently recognized by a local media outlet as one of the 100 most influential women in the Bay Area at a dinner gathering in San Francisco. The event organizers asked each of these women, in 10 words or less, to impart a piece of advice on what being a leader meant to them. As everybody listened and nibbled on their desserts, I was furiously scribbling down words of wisdom from this diverse and deep group of leaders on the back of every program belonging to the people with whom I was sharing a table that evening. Their words about leadership now sit in a frame on my desk and inspire me every day. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Great leaders inspire greater leaders
  • You have tremendous influence; use it to change the world
  • Surround yourself with brilliant people
  • You do not need a title to be a leader
  • Shake things up; this is where you will thrive
  • Great leaders bring out the great leaders on their teams
  • Love what you do
  • Passion, hard work and great people equal success