What Makes a Great Leader?

Here is what James Champy thinks.

Managing must, of course, begin with an objective. But understanding where you're going should quickly be followed by empathy, an attribute that is both a hard and soft quality. Understanding what your people, your customers, your suppliers–and even your competitors–are going through is critical to making intelligent decisions when business conditions are difficult. The caring part of empathy, especially for the people with whom you work, is what inspires people to stay with a leader when the going gets rough. The mere fact that someone cares is more often than not rewarded with loyalty.

Next to empathy lies the willingness to understand your personal responsibility for what trouble you and your company are in. I once saw a manager who periodically let his company fall into chaos just so that he could exercise his brilliance in cleaning up the mess.

Many managers are also prepared to blame their business conditions on others, or in times like this, the economy. They sit still, waiting for things to improve. Great leaders are quietly introspective, always asking whether they are a cause of the organization's problems or whether they are doing what needs to be done.

To take decisive action, great managers are always searching for the truth. They look for ideas in strange places and encourage debate in search of the right decision. They also recognize the obvious: When a meeting room is quiet, no one is saying what they think. The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper demonstrated this searching quality when he said to his students, "I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth."

The willingness to be so open requires the strength to make yourself vulnerable. It also requires a great leader to encourage people to speak truth to power.

I've seen several blurbs in the press recently about how women may make better leaders. They definitely tend to be more empathetic than men, so maybe it is true. I think after the scandal ridden dotcom boom, companies are looking for a little more empathy and humility in their CEOs.

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