Leadership is like magic. It's reserved for the legendary few who are gifted with the secrets of being able to inspire others and stir something in them that mystically changes those people forever. Simply being in the presence of one of these gifted leaders can profoundly affect anyone lucky enough to be in the same room. Ok, so I'm exaggerating a bit but many of us actually do look at leadership in a similar fashion. It's simply not true.
Leadership is a choice and a series of capabilities that improve with knowledge, practice and focus. Just like any other skill or expertise we develop. Are there people who are innately good at it?... of course, again like any other skill. But people who don't find that it comes naturally can still work, learn and practice to the point where they become solid, proficient leaders who make an incredible amount of difference on a daily basis for the people and organizations they lead. There's a tremendous number of opinions out there about what capabilities make a good leader. I've covered a few of them below that I've seen set leaders apart from those who simply supervise or manage.
They understand human behavior change and what causes it
Every day I watch managers tell people what to do. If that person doesn't comply, they tell them again, a little harder and then if they still don't comply, they threaten them or just continue to increase the volume or frequency of their instructions. People who operate this way simply don't understand how and why people shift behavior and how to help an individual do something different tomorrow than they did today to be more productive, effective and successful. Telling is only useful if the lack of information is what's holding someone back. If someone wants to do something and doesn't know how, telling works. If they don't agree with the directions, find the task valuable or they simply think other things are more important, telling them they should has little or no impact. Maybe I even do agree with the task but I have a different set of habits or patterns that currently govern my actions. I might agree that being more organized or getting to the gym every day is a good thing but I have habits or internal thoughts that cause me to do other things. Why do we have a sense that telling someone to work out more probably won't change their patterns but believe that at work we can tell someone to be more organized and think that because we are "at work" or because we are "in charge" that human behavior will now suspend all of the rules it follows and bow to our authority? Human behavior change follows some pretty predictable paths in most cases and understanding what drives change in most individuals is critical if you are going to be a great leader.
They can build a culture of accountability
Most managers say that they want their teams to be more accountable and take more responsibility for solving problems, innovating, and feeling a sense of ownership for the outcomes. If I ask managers what steps they have to take to make that happen consistently on their team, generally the answers are more like guesses than a repeatable process that works. Part of what’s necessary here is the learning around the value of compliance vs. the value of commitment. Leaders have to choose which one they value more and then learn the process to make that happen. Many would-be leaders say they want commitment from their team but struggle as we go through the steps for creating that because it means they have to learn to lead through influence rather than control. Giving up control for something much better can feel difficult and risky to many managers because control is what got them here and they aren't willing to take some risk to get to the next level of leadership. Also, for many people, control feels pretty good, I tell people to do things and they go do them. Sometimes people feel a great deal of satisfaction in their ability to make things happen, even if they ultimately could make better and bigger things happen by making a shift.
They understand and can execute each stage of the talent pipeline
Getting and keeping amazing people on your team doesn't just happen by accident and most of the research indicates that people leave an organization because of their boss more than any other factor. A recent study even indicated that about a third of employees would take a pay cut to have their immediate supervisor replaced. The talent pipeline is recruiting, selection, onboarding, developing and maximizing. Knowing what the successful steps are during each phase of the process and how to execute them well builds a very strong foundation for getting the right people on the team and helping them develop to reach their full potential.
These are just a few of the capabilities that you can watch great leaders consistently exhibit. They have learned what works, how to be proficient at the behaviors that are successful and they practice every day to improve their ability to execute. Leadership isn't an accident. There are certainly a small group of people that come by some of these skills naturally but for the rest of us, learning and hard work can get us as as far down the leadership path as we are willing to travel.