What Does It Take to Be a Great Leader? The Same Things It Takes to Be a Great Person

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HERE’S SOMETHING I’VE LEARNED from years of managing people: Great leadership wisdom is really hard to find.

For all of the many leadership books that have been written — and there are more than 60,000 listed on Amazon — the really great V-8 moments, the “Blinding Flashes of the Obvious” where a truly great leadership or management principle conks you over the head, are few and far between.

Where I frequently find great leadership insights is in executive interviews, for example, what The New York Times does in their Corner Office feature, where they sit down for a Q&A with a business leader in the hope that some pearls of wisdom will be magically revealed.

Sometimes that actually happens, but recently, I had an executive share some great leadership wisdom with me directly.

What does it take to be a great leader?

LinkedIn’s Dan Shapero

Last month, I sat down with Dan Shapero, the vice president for talent solutions, careers, & learning at LinkedIn. He’s responsible for LinkedIn’s $3 billion-plus talent solutions business, and a very interesting guy. I spent a little time with him at LinkedIn’s Talent Connect conference in Anaheim.

We were discussing what it takes to be a good boss and a great leader when Dan offered this sharp leadership insight that almost knocked me over. You can get all of it in my ERE article How “More Than Ever, Companies Win or Lose on Their People, but here’s the key part of what he said:

The thing I learned is that the elements of a great leader are, in a lot of ways, the same elements of a great person. Some people have this idea that leaders act a certain way and have a certain bravado about them. I actually think the truth is far from that, and that the people others want to follow are those who are true to themselves, have authenticity in their relationships, and are great people.

You really want to work for great people, so realizing that being a great leader was just being a better person is very liberating in a lot of ways.”

Boom! Dan hit me with one of those Blinding Flashes of the Obvious when he noted that “the elements of a great leader are … the same elements of a great person.”

Learning from the good — and the bad

It sounds terribly simple, but consider all the managers and leaders you have worked for — how many of them were great people? My guess is that the ones you considered the very best leaders were also really good people, and when you think about leadership, it’s an insight that makes perfect sense.

But, the flip side to Dan Shapero’s wisdom is also true and worth remembering: The elements that make a bad person are the very same ones that make for a bad leader.

I dug into this not too long ago in a Fistful of Talent post on how The Very Best Lessons Usually Come From Very Bad Managers. Here’s the point I made:

“In my career, I’ve had great bosses and terrible bosses, smart bosses and dumb bosses. I’ve also had bosses who were thoughtful managers, bosses who were purposely forgetful, and bosses who were over-the-top political. There were ones I would run through a wall for, but also ones I would run away from if I saw them walking down the street

I learned things from some good ones, of course, but the greatest and most memorable lessons came from the really bad managers I toiled under.”

It makes sense that good leaders would be good people, but it also makes sense that bad bosses are so memorable that the lessons you learn from their terrible management style would stick with you the longest. And, it also makes sense that if we didn’t have bad leaders and managers around, we probably wouldn’t appreciate all that it takes to be a good one.

Great wisdom is all around us

My guess is that LinkedIn’s Dan Shapero is probably a pretty good leader. That’s because someone who clearly understands that good leaders are also good people probably knows that because they practice what they preach.

There are good people and bad people all around us that we deal with every day. It makes sense that the very best leaders would also be some of the very best people, and I thank my new friend Dan Shapero for pointing that out to me.

It’s a reminder to keep your eyes and ears open always because those V-8 moments where great wisdom hits you over the head are all around us.

It has taken me a lifetime to learn this, but all too often, the great wisdom in life is evident in the little things we encounter every day. The trick is being open and able to recognize when it comes your way.

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