When searching for the qualities that make any one individual a leader, a recommendation that any list or service found on the internet promising to teach “the secret all great leaders live by” be avoided is likely to save you money and memory for more useful things. Often, these lists are extrapolated based on the qualities shown by figures in business – Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates are models drawn upon so often their names have become synonymous with success in business ventures of any kind. The frequency with which their names are thrown about would indicate that determining what would breed success could be as simple as understanding what traits were shared by these people, then claiming these are the characteristics of effective leaders or managers.
But what actually makes a good leader? Lines are drawn between public and private sector leadership, effectiveness and efficiency, leadership versus management, and becoming a symbol of success or simply succeeding. Examples of poor leadership or management run abound in every business and industry type across the globe – traits like an inability to cede control, poor listening skills and a simple failure to produce are understood to be poor qualities by those being lead by these managers at any given time. But beyond certain universal traits, objective evaluations of the quality of leadership are overly analytical and theoretical while being subject to individual or organizational bias (thereby eliminating the value of objectivity entirely).
The first question: Are different traits required to be an effective public or private sector leader? Of course -the differentiation between a mission of profit generation versus serving the public interest itself requires a different approach to problem solving. Goal ambiguity, the degree of bureaucracy and consistency in strategic direction are factors that influence management style. Additionally, the measures of success differ. Profitability, while occasionally overly efficiency-focused, at least outlines a tangible objective. Working on a shifting political mandate on a taxpayer budget makes the idea of a concrete long-term objective slightly more ambiguous. Understanding this, certain character traits are more visible in each industry: a need for achievement and affiliation is stronger in the private sector, with a key differentiator in styles being “a desire to be unique” commonly held amongst public sector managers, and “a desire to have an impact” held more deeply in the private sector.
In the case of leadership vs management, idioms range: leaders innovate, managers administrate. Leaders develop, managers maintain. But being a manager does not preclude one from holding leadership traits – in fact, in the example above of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, neither were famed for their interpersonal skills, a fundamental weapon in a manager’s arsenal. To lead is to direct an organization, but to manage is to encourage the people who actually work within the organization to achieve those lofty expectations. In this case, a strong leader may be an ineffective manager if they lack listening skills and empathy for their fellow man.
As to becoming a symbol of success, this falls into the lap of the question “what is the difference between a great leader and an icon?”. The answer is undoubtedly circumstance. In the public and private sector, examples abound of individuals who saw opportunity and exploited it. A question exists of whether the Churchills, the Dr. Kings, the Fords of the world would have been capable of rising to the heights they did in a different era. And the answer to that is both unknown and not relevant – they are who they are because of their skillset that was both effective and sought after at that time. And to become iconic is not necessarily a reflection of effectiveness – Richard Branson and Donald Trump are neither the richest, nor the most successful businessmen to ever live. But their names are iconic in ways that Amancia Ortega and Larry Ellison’s simply aren’t. Effective leadership can not be attributed to successful branding, otherwise becoming a true icon would simply involve having an enormously engaged following on social media.
The definition of leadership has evolved over time to be one less focused upon motivation and more upon engagement. In other words, leaders have to learn to manage those they work for in a deeper fashion. In a world where empathy reigns supreme, Welch’s growth-focused style and Jobs meticulous detail-orientation would actually be viewed as detractions that may have dramatically impeded them had circumstance been different. But shush – no one tell that to the lists on the internet.