What makes a good leader? A willingness to make decisions — and to serve.

Recently, I was asked to speak to MAGNET, the group for young professionals, about the challenges faced and rewards earned with a successful career. They particularly were interested in business Leadership.

You know how these things go … I told them what I could in the time allotted, and then afterward thought, “I wish I’d said this, too.”

So I’m lucky to have a blog, where I can post a P.S. And this is it:

One of the first things we learned in kindergarten was to walk single file. The first one in line was the designated “leader.” The rest “follow” the leader.

As adults, we still line up all day long — outside of movie restrooms, in retail checkout lines, approaching highway onramps. We don’t need an assigned leader when we know the rules and can adapt our behavior to produce the expected outcome.

In good economies, Leaders can enjoy the fruits of their labors and the talents of their staff and step back a bit — maybe take an extended paid vacation. In bad economies, they take furloughs without pay, but go to the office anyway. All hands on deck; all oars in the water, rowing the same direction.

Who sets the direction? That’s right. Whether the Leader does it alone or by management committee or by all-staff consensus, it is their role to make sure the course is set and the boat is as seaworthy as possible.

We do need leadership all the time, but particularly during periods of uncertainty. After 9/11 and Katrina, the first thing we wanted was Leadership (capital “L”). And good leaders may not have all the answers or solutions, but they take ultimate responsibility for establishing priorities and procedures and for coordinating information.

Given all the challenges business owners and managers (and definitely staff) are facing today, I am really bored with consultants who advocate that business should adopt a “soft l” instead of a capital “L” for the word “Leader.” I’ve done more than one talk radio show on the subject and I really bristle (maybe you’ve heard me) when interviewing one of an emerging cottage industry (oftentimes of the ilk who has never managed any staff at all) bent on explaining to company owners that leadership is an antiquated concept, and consensus building is today’s manager’s position description.

Here’s a [free] consult in return: Consensus building is a skill — a critical tool for any good manager But it isn’t a job description or substitute for Leadership.

A good manager is a TRUE LEADER (feel free to use all caps). S/he inspires others to follow because they have gained the trust of customers, vendors, employees and supervisor by showing the experience and wisdom to lead. S/he is grounded in common sense and has a big-picture understanding of everyone’s role and contributions to the larger organization. S/he can articulate the company’s desired vision and/or measurable outcomes, and understands the need to motivate a team to get there — and to reward them as much as possible.

S/he knows when to fold and when to play, and when to call in outside expertise, and when to ask for help from staff and trusted advisors.

The Leader runs as transparent a business as possible and doesn’t have to remind staff that they are the Leader. When the sky is falling, everyone knows who is supposed to point the way to shelter. And eyes tend to go that direction. Still, they don’t “rule” — they “lead.”

You can spot the leader of a group. It is the one in the group who, when a controversial comment is made with no particular target present in the room, people look to, to see what their reaction is. (And the leader isn’t always the manager, and vice-versa.)

Not that Leaders have all the answers (or all of the RIGHT answers). They are the appointed ones, expected to sign off on the processes or priorities to arrive at the best solution with staff. It doesn’t mean they do all the thinking. But true leaders are authorized and empowered by those who follow to do the deciding.

Leaders don’t manage talented people; that’s like herding cats. Nor do they babysit incompetents. The leader’s job, in my opinion, is to make sure the organization has the relevant resources (including staff), procedures, and tools to move from point A to point B in an ethical manner (yes, I think ethics are part of leadership).

It isn’t all about money. A Leader’s role or responsibility isn’t as fickle as the market’s ability to pay an invoice on time. Whether the company has a positive or negative cash flow in any particular week, the leader is monitoring it and looking ahead. Planning.

Good Leaders don’t back away from the role for fear it will offend anyone in the group that they personally got picked (or earned the privilege) to be “it” for this round.

They don’t apologize for experience or common sense or employee or owner trust.

Nor do they sit by quietly when a spokesman for the latest and greatest “business model” calls Leadership “antiquated” or implies it is a holdover corporate power play to control the masses.

I invite them to spend a day in a leader’s shoes. Then maybe they’ll understand that the best leader of all is the best servant, too.

But that knowledge only comes with experience and sweat and tears.

And that’s what it’s like to be a Leader.

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