Leadership.  I’ll Know It when I See It.

OCTOBER 11, 2017


What makes a good leader and who gets to decide? This is a question that I’ve been pondering lately. It’s sort of like when someone says “they say this new restaurant is really great!” Don’t you wonder who ‘they are’? And how did ‘they’ get to have an opinion that matters?

Well if you walk into any bookstore, or shop with any online retailer, you’ll immediately see that there are a lot of ‘theys’ out there sharing ‘their’ wisdom regarding leadership. Some of these folks have been successful leaders themselves (i.e. Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, etc.). Others are academics who have focused much of their professional and academic life to the goal of better understanding leadership – how to demonstrate it, how to teach it, etc.

It’s so interesting. I guess if it was all that straightforward, you wouldn’t see such variety in thoughts, opinions, perspectives. So, I’m not going to try to add one more perspective to the mix. Except to raise one teensy, weensy super-obvious point about leadership – you tend to know it when you see it.

Let’s take a short trip back in history to 1964. The Supreme Court was hearing a case (Jacobellis v. Ohio) with the purpose of determining whether a specific motion picture would be considered pornography. Justice Stewart’s opinion on the matter basically says (forgive my non-lawyerly interpretation) that it is quite difficult “to define what may be indefinable” and added his now famous comment – “But I know it when I see it…”


“But I know it when I see it.”

I feel ya Justice Stewart. That’s how I feel about leadership. It’s tough to comprehensively define, but I sure feel like I know it when I see it. For instance, there are some common features that I often notice when I see a good leader:

Good Leaders are Good Communicators

They have a strong sense of what needs to be said and to whom. They think about the explicit and implicit meanings of the words they choose. They are willing to deliver the hard news as well as giving praise when the situation requires it. They are sensitive to internal and external audiences and can balance the two well.

Good Leaders Create an Atmosphere of Trust

They are the first in line to take the heat when management ‘comes calling’. They give open and honest feedback to their team members, their peers, and their management.   They understand the role that transparency can play and to the extent possible, share openly and honestly with those around them.

Good Leaders Create Vision

This is more important than any vision or mission statement the organization will develop. The leader will ensure the organization or team they lead fully understands the importance of the work. If the leader doesn’t understand and effectively communicate the role the team plays, chances are the team won’t understand it either.

Good Leaders Support Their Team

This might be the most obvious one of them all, but honestly, it is? Support means letting people know where their weaknesses and challenges are and ensuring they have tools and support to address issues where possible. Support also means letting a person move on to the next role when the time is right, even if they are the strongest person on your team.

Good leadership doesn’t just happen. It’s intentional.

Here’s the thing – a list like this can go on and on. In fact, I’m sure there are 100’s of other elements you could add to the list. So, what is the purpose of even creating a list that’s not complete? Because at the end of the day, good leadership doesn’t just happen – it’s intentional. It requires focus and commitment and purposeful action.

Leadership: is demonstrated by individuals who understand the importance of these and many other elements. Individuals who understand while they may not be strong in all these arenas, they are committed to consistent improvement. Individuals who understand the culture of their organization and how to prioritize the leadership styles and approaches that will work best.

Leadership: is supported by organizations who understand the connection between maximizing a leader’s potential and achieving organizational goals. Organizations who understand that without good leaders, it’s hard to cultivate an environment of success. Organizations who are willing to invest time and resources to ensure individuals have access to tools that will support effective leadership.

Leadership. I’ll know it when I see it and so will you.

And when you find it – and these folks are everywhere if you are paying attention – those are the ones that you want to have running your teams and organizations. And those are the kinds of leaders that we all aspire to be.

Schedule a complimentary discussion to discuss how TLS may helpful to you as a leader, or for leaders in your organization.


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