07 01 12 rock balanceAs we enter this new year, I am taking time to reflect on leadership, what it means, what makes a great leader, and what people can do to improve their leadership skills. In the spirit of always being willing to improve, I read lots of other leadership related blogs, books, magazines, etc. in order to learn different, better or newer methods of leading and motivating people. To be sure, I am often thinking about such issues and hoping to improve my own abilities as a leader.

When considering what makes a great leader, at first glance, one might say academics and that many great leaders hail from great colleges and universities. While I would never doubt nor demean the value of a great collegiate education, some of the best business minds of our day didn’t even attend college or university. This said, there are also many great leaders that have in fact received degrees from top schools around the country and the world for that matter. However, I believe that it’s fairly safe to say that college in and of itself cannot prepare someone to be a great leader.

So, maybe great leaders are made by experience – years spent working their way through corporate ranks and honing their skills along the way. Surely, some wonderful business leaders followed this track to reach the top floor, corner office. Think Jack Welch – starting as a junior engineer for GE in 1960 and culminating his career there as Chairman and CEO from 1981 through 2001, becoming one of the most esteemed and highly-regarded business leaders of the modern day. And there are countless others who spent many years learning their businesses from the ground up. However, there are also many examples of highly successful business leaders who haven’t got years of experience, starting at the bottom and climbing. In fact, some of the world’s wealthiest business leaders have barely lived long enough to have much business experience at all. So, while it is tempting to believe that experience is a determining factor in leadership success, reality shows that such accomplishment can be had without much experience. So, like academic credentials, experience alone does not make for a great leader.

So, what is it about great leaders that make them so good? Well, I would suggest that leadership ability is, to some extent, determined by innate characteristics such as those described in my “Leadership Pheromones” post. Simply stated, there are just some people who inherently capture our attention and command our respect and following. Some people, like Liz Strauss, describe such qualities as a “magnetic personality”. These people are just naturally able to motivate and inspire groups toward a common goal. Think about such political figures as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. When these folks speak, audience members hang on every word. They’re even inspired to action by the mere mention of a cause. This leadership quality is not easily described or learned, but rather, it’s just an effortless ability. But to be sure, people who do have this gift must also prove themselves worthy of our support beyond just their natural ability to motivate. This gift alone does not justify a large, supportive following.

What the great leaders are able to do is to leverage the best of their assets – be it academic qualifications and know how, business experience and/or innate leadership ability – to achieve their success as a leader. There are countless examples of those that perhaps lacked one or more of these traits but still rose to tremendous success by sheer determination and motivating their teams to reach for the stars. One example is Joseph Moglia, Chairman of TD Ameritrade. From humble roots, he continued to strive for better and higher goals … achieving great things throughout his career as shown in this recent Reader’s Digest article. Joe attributes his success to “an ability to ‘get inside the hearts and minds of your people, having them pull together for a common cause.’” I couldn’t agree more.

Nina nets it out: Just because you don’t have an academic degree from an amazing school or years of experience, don’t count yourself out as a potential great leader. You may just have innate abilities that, when combined with your other talents, can empower you to achieve greatness nonetheless. Keep striving, keep motivating, keep learning!