How To Tell If You’re In The Presence of a Leader

I typically begin my leadership workshops with two questions.

The first is “How many feel they have ever been in the presence of a great leader.”

After some hesitation, about half the hands go up.

My follow-up question is this: “How many have ever been in the presence of someone who thinks they are a great leader but are not?”

Typically, every hand in the room shoots up immediately.

My take-away from this is that, while people sometimes have difficulty defining what a great leader is, almost everyone knows—and has experienced firsthand—what they are not.

Sometimes, I ask participants in our workshop discussions to think about someone whom they consider to be a great leader. I then ask them to jot down some of their personality traits. What types of behavior do they engage in? How do they communicate? And finally, how do others relate to them?

When we categorize their answers as a group, we typically learn an important lesson about good leaders right off the bat: a true leader’s power and charisma has less to do with their behavior, strategy, or skills than it does with how they affect others and help make them better.

This exercise continues to reinforce what I’ve learned over the years: that it’s not the individuals that are necessarily the best speakers, the most charismatic presenters, or the ones who command the room immediately with their energy. It’s a bit ironic, really. While we typically envision leaders as extroverts, quite a few successful and well-known leaders self-identify as introverts. According to The Quiet Revolution by Susan Cain, this is because truly effective leadership reflects a balance between talking and listening—a behavior that introverts already have a head start on developing, using, and modeling.

If being a strong leader was fundamentally about how you act, there are literally hundreds of courses you could take to learn how to stand, speak, gesture, and project to command attention. Instead, rather than practicing how to come across like a TED Talk speaker, I recommend that you focus on what it takes to inspire and motivate others to think, act, and collaborate more effectively.

For example, take a minute to recall the presentations you saw at the last conference you attended. Do you remember any of them? Chances are the ones delivered by experts with studied casualness according to the TED Talk template, hilariously parodied here, aren’t the ones that pop readily to mind. At least for me, the leaders whose messages stay with me are the ones that inspire me to take new or innovative actions that will help me, my team, or my organization do things in more collaborative and effective ways.

I think all real leadership is based on relationships. When a strong leader is at work, everything they do leads to genuine engagement and trust. Individuals who lead their organizations from this perspective don’t cast themselves as the source of all decisions and strategy; instead, they create a collaborative energy and culture that inspires everyone to bring their best to the table.

Individuals who make the strongest leaders are flexible, empathetic, and intuitive enough to create a culture that is powerful, attractive, engaging, and above all, sustainable. By being flexible and intuitive, those who emerge as the strongest leaders will be the ones who are able to truly develop others toward a degree of excellence that ultimately rewards each individual, their team, and the organization.

Take a moment to think of someone whom you have encountered in your business or personal life whom you believe is a great leader. Try to articulate why you have chosen them. Do most of your reasons have to do with their skills and personal attributes, or are they more related to their ability to inspire, motivate, and create results?