Be a Good Leader By Being A Good Person

John Coltrane, the great American jazz saxophonist and composer, once said that to be a better artist you have to be a better person. He could easily have been talking about leadership. My research and observation of leaders during the past couple of decades has demonstrated clearly that great leadership can’t be reduced to techniques or a title. Great leadership comes from the integrity and character of the leader.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned about leadership:

  • There’s a difference between a boss and a leader. You can get promoted to “boss”, but you can’t be promoted to “leader”. You have to earn the right to be called a leader.
  • You aren’t a leader until someone says you are. Leadership is defined by those around you, not by size of your office or the title behind your name.
  • Leadership is a decision. If you have decided to make the world better through others, you are on your way to earning the right to be called a leader.
  • To be called a leader, you need followers. Not followers in the traditional sense who blindly obey because they have to, but followers who have a choice, and they choose to follow you. Leadership is the art getting people to want to do what must be done.
  • Leadership is about creating results through others – without the use of positional power. It’s about presence, not position. The question is: Where does that sense of presence come from? How does one develop that presence?

After years of research and observation, I’ve come to understand that sense of presence comes, essentially, from being a good person. It’s that easy, and it’s that difficult. Here are a few ways to develop your leadership presence by being a good person:

  1. Character. We’ve all met people in our work experience who are bright, talented, competent, good at making deals, but something about who they are as a person got in the way of all their ability. Character is about moral integrity, acting honestly and ethically. It’s also about relational integrity, being accountable – having the ability to be counted on. It’s earning the trust of others by being trustworthy. It’s about earning the respect of others through self-respect. People of strong character are integrated human beings.
  2. Caring. In a recent coaching session with an executive, we were discussing possible reasons for the lack of results from his team. When I asked him, “Do you care?” he kept going on about his frustration for the lack of accountability on the team and the poor attitude of his employees. I pushed further, “I know you care about results, but do you care about the people around you? Do you care about what matters to them, about their families and their values and their unique gifts?” After a long pause he shrugged his shoulders and said, “No, not really.” I then suggested he do his organization and himself a favor and step down from the responsibility of management. To lead you have to connect. To connect, you have to care. You can’t fake caring, just like you can’t fake character. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Leadership is a largely a matter of caring about people, not manipulating them.
  3. Centered. Centered leaders know their worth, strength, and security comes from within. Because they don’t define themselves by their external environment, they are able to maintain calmness in the midst of the storms, security in the midst of failure, and perspective in the midst of success. Centered leaders are guided by an internal compass based on their own values and their own approach to life rather than on the fleeting opinions of others or comparisons to others. They are focused on what matters and are able to go within and find inner strength, wisdom, and stability, even in the midst of a demanding external world.
  4. Contribution. Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, have devoted much of their energy to global development philanthropy. While in Ottawa to discuss overseas aid with the Canadian government, he said, in part, “In countries such as the U.S. and Canada, where a lot of people are doing quite well, the question is: Can you take your loyalty and your values and go further than yourself and your family, even beyond your region and your country? Can you have, as a member of the human race, the idea that you would volunteer time or your voice, or whatever means you have to give? You’re connecting yourself with the improvements needed around the world: eradicating polio, for example, or making sure there’s enough food for poor children. I think that … people want to be associated with more than their own success – they want to have knowledge and a sense of progress that they contributed to [something beyond themselves]… We call that our ‘global citizenship’ movement.” Bill Gates understands that being a good person means allowing your success to overflow into making life better for others.  This commitment to contribute beyond yourself, whether it’s across the world or across the corridor outside your office door, is what makes a great leader.

Being a good leader by being a good person cannot be taught in a leadership course or textbook. But it can be learned. It can be developed. My dad would say that it can be caught even though it can’t be taught. It’s means your motive is to do good by being good. And it amounts to leading well by living well.