What makes a great leader?

A clear and uncomplicated vision, the ability to set priorities and execute them, and a strong executive presence can make the difference between a weak leader and a great one.

What are the most common leadership problems we see as executive coaches? Some leaders have a great vision but are poor on execution. Some have an ineffective team. Others get wrapped up in day-to-day meetings and lose sight of true priorities. These are all common issues that leaders face. As executive coaches, we work with leaders all the time. And we are often asked, "What makes a great leader?"

In this article we will cover a few of the important characteristics we see in really great leaders. However, sometimes success in leadership really does come down to luck. Really! A leader can do everything right and inevitably something bad happens such as the economy taking a dive, a competitor shifts the market by introducing a new product unexpectedly, or the government legislates a change that limits one’s ability to compete. But sometimes a leader does everything right, something great happens and success is exponential. The point here isn’t luck; it is that everything is not completely in a leader’s hands. If he or she is good, bad things can still happen. Good or bad, a leader might just get lucky but can’t control luck. The only thing in a leader’s control is how he or she leads so we will focus on what can be controlled. If you’re an aspiring leader, or a leader looking to improve your skills, consider the following strengths and ask yourself where you stand. What do you need to do to get there?

Great leaders have the courage to have an uncomplicated vision

The vision and execution plan might be fairly complex but how it’s communicated should be easy to understand. Too many leaders communicate long and complex strategy documents to staff. A good vision is a vision that staff can easily articulate and that teams can easily articulate. People need to first hear where the leader sees the business going. They then need to understand what that means and finally they need to know what they need to do to help achieve that vision. Successful leaders are able to translate the vision into something that everyone can execute. They make clear what each person can do to help the business achieve its strategy and they engage each person enough that he or she wants to act.

There is no shortcut on execution

Execution involves getting more deeply involved in the business, unit by unit. To do this well, leaders need to work hard and dig deep. This takes time. Nothing improves without that deep and timeconsuming effort. It’s necessary to have conversations at all levels and to analyze the business — know where it is strong and where it needs work. Where the business is strong, leaders can encourage their people to do more and let them manage. Where it is weak, they should dig in and help fix things. They can ask questions, review talent levels and refine the vision or replace people where necessary. Taking the business piece by piece, encouraging and motivating the strong areas and rolling up their sleeves to help the weaker areas ensures the strategy is executed.

Effective leaders use their time wisely by focusing on true priorities

Great leaders have great focus. They set up every day and week with what they’re going to focus on and they don’t get sucked into the minutiae. They focus on real priorities. A Harvard Business Review study indicated that "90% of managers squander their time in all sorts of ineffective activities. In other words, a mere 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful and reflective manner." Rather than spending too much time in meetings, checking emails and making phone calls, it’s crucial to carve out time for strategic initiatives. But leaders also know how to choose the right battles. Strong leaders focus on what they know they can change. They don’t try to change the entire firm.

Great leaders are expansive

One of my favourite quotes is by Harry Truman: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." Really great leaders are expansive. This means that they show confidence in people, share credit and inspire individuals to reach higher and achieve more. They make other people look good.

Being expansive also involves giving away work. Sometimes they have to give away work to grow a business. Strong leaders know that they don’t have to be the smartest person in the room and impress everyone. It’s OK to ask for help and not do everything themselves. At times there will be a colleague or partner who has different expertise and can add value for the client over and above what their experience can offer.

In order to do this well, they need to really give the work away. They fully trust others to do the work. And they’re well connected, both externally and internally. They have a team of go-to people in other practices, know which practices fit well with their client base and develop those relationships. They treat the internal relationships the same as they would external ones — by mapping them out and penetrating them.

Strong leaders have a really great team that they manage well

No one does it alone. The best leaders have a strong team supporting them and they do a great job of managing it. As leaders’ roles get bigger, responsibilities increase. To have an impact on a larger group of people, they need help. Teams are important for a number of reasons. First, they share ideas (more minds equal more perspectives and better ideas). Second, they challenge the leader so he or she makes fewer mistakes. And third, they give the leader leverage. If the team shares the vision and strategy, it can do some of the work for the leader by spreading the word. When team members share a vision, they hold each other accountable to execute it. Sometimes leaders maybe have the right team but are not using them well. Picking and managing a team efficiently is an important leadership skill to have and continually develop. When the whole leadership team executes on a vision, the strategy is more likely to succeed.

Great leaders are personable and have strong presence

Sometimes really great leaders just have that X factor that’s hard to describe. We refer to it as executive presence (see The "x" factor: building executive presence, April. This has to do with the image they project, the way they communicate with others and the way they carry themselves. They’re often very personable, have a great phone manner and are very engaging. They don’t come across as stressed — even if they are, they project a calm and easy-going manner. No matter how tense they may be they don’t show it. This is important because it gives people confidence and it makes them want to follow.

With these skills and a little luck, you will achieve your vision — this is really what leadership is about. Focus on the things you can control. How you lead and how you mobilize others will make all the difference, if done well.


"The ‘x’ factor: building executive presence," by Sandra Oliver, CPA Magazine, April 2014.

"Beware the Busy Manager," by Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal, Harvard Business Review, February 2002.