What makes a great leader?
OK. Clearly the post title is a bad pun. Hope you and Trekkies everywhere can forgive me for that. But the point I want to make is a much more important one. Lots of people get put in charge of staff, but what truly makes a great leader?
I started thinking about this when a friend asked me for some names of iconic leaders throughout history. Half-kidding, I offered the name James T. Kirk. My friend, who in her defense is not a Star Trek fan, asked whether Captain Kirk was seen as a good guy or just plain “dumb.”
Now maybe I should take a moment to explain that I am indeed a Star Trek fan — original show, spin-offs, and films. While I’m no Trekkie and could never decipher even the most basic Klingon phrase without an official Klingon translator, the mere thought of Kirk being called “dumb” made my non-Vulcan blood boil.
So Was James T. Kirk a Great Leader?
In my mind? Without a doubt. And the 2009 Chris Pine Star Trek film captured the essence of why I say this and what makes him or anyone a good leader. The fun part was, we got to see his leadership style in contrast to the cool logical half-Vulcan Mr. Spock. (I’ve worked for versions of Spock more than once, only those versions seemed to lack his half-human side.)
And despite all his obvious flaws, especially in his younger years where the film focuses — he was after all the youngest Starfleet captain ever when he took charge of the Enterprise — Captain Kirk is indeed the embodiment of a true leader.
So what makes James T. Kirk or anyone a great leader? For me, the answer goes beyond linear representations of leadership skills, which are the kind Spock would excel at. True leaders have something more … an indefinable, almost-magical leadership quality that, when taken as a whole, turns out to be greater than the individual parts.
List of Leadership Qualities
A great leader …
- Has vision and can communicate that vision to others.
- Inspires others. Not just mere admiration, but a step beyond.
- Cares about the team and not just what they can do for the boss.
- Commits 100% (rather than making staff do that on their own).
- Believes in themself — and most importantly in their team.
- Isn’t afraid to admit they’re wrong. And adjust course as needed.
- Knows how to delegate and doesn’t claim to know it all.
- Doesn’t micromanage … and doesn’t need to.
- Isn’t afraid of staff who know more than they do. In fact, a real leader looks for talent, since the leader is not the one who has to know everything. They just make sure things happens.
- Mobilizes the team and then knows when to step aside so staff can take the lead, offer new ideas, and create their own solutions.
A few more key leadership qualities
- Knows how to recognize, nurture, and build talent.
- Encourages unity. But also is not personally challenged by disagreement. In fact, great leaders encourage diverse opinions to help build & strengthen the Enterprise … er … enterprise.
- Is always there for their team. When they run up against roadblocks, as well as when they succeed.
- Knows when and just how much to bend the rules.
- Knows how — and is not afraid — to make tough decisions.
- Inspires loyalty and is loyal back to their team.
- Makes sure to let the team know when a job has been done well.
- Knows how to leave a team member(s) feeling motivated, even if they screw up.
Never Lose Human Factor in Leadership
Not one of the qualities listed above speaks to things like reaching every goal, never missing a deadline, stifling disagreement, cutting costs to the bone. Or letting employees live in fear of losing their jobs, pitting staff against each other, ruling with an iron fist from above. Plus grooming a few flying monkeys to do one’s bidding.
And yet a lot of bosses who think they are great leaders rely on precisely those methods. Very unKirk-like behavior, don’t you think?
James T. Kirk excelled as a leader despite (and I submit enhanced by) his many decidedly-human qualities, lack of Spock-like formality, and rebel nature. He inspired loyalty because of who he was and how he treated his crew. And he seems to have come by his leadership abilities naturally, despite Academy training trying to delete the flaws.
Of course, we who follow Star Trek also know our beloved half-human Spock eventually learned to be a good leader (aided by Kirk’s mentoring, unwavering support, and belief in his abilities). But let’s face it … no matter how far Spock got, he could never become the inspiring leader our 100% human-to-the-core Captain Kirk was. Logic and precision can only go so far. 🙂
As for examples of great real-life iconic leaders, for me Mohandas Gandhi and a man he inspired, Martin Luther King, immediately come to mind. So what about you? Any great leaders from any time or dimension — real or fictional — pop into your head?
About the author…
Ronnie Ann, founder of Work To the Wise and Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development, as well as her many adventures as a serial job seeker.
[Post updated in 2020]
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