When you call someone a great leader, what exactly do you mean?

written by Erica Quam

A leader is a broad and general term. The definition can be somewhat intangible. Calling someone a great leader can have a different meaning to different people - based on their own unique life experiences. 

I learned a lot about leadership when I took my first NOLS course...an 18-day backpacking trip up in the Yukon. The concept of leadership really came alive for me. I began to see myself as a leader in ways I hadn't yet considered. 

The image of a leader I had in my mind was someone who was outspoken and direct; someone who could be brash and not worry about what other people thought; someone who stood passionately by their opinions and beliefs; someone who - above all else - drove the group forward...to get it done.

That wasn't me...although I'll admit that sometimes I felt I needed to change to fit into this mold as a head coach. 

During my course I learned first-hand how that was only ONE of many different ways to lead. When I took my turn as the "leader of the day" and had to lead our group through white-out conditions, I had to be transparent with the decisions I was making - so people felt included and safe. I had to be compassionate and check-in with people - to make sure everyone was staying warmed, fueled, and taking care of themselves too. I also had to be vulnerable, admit that I didn't have it all figured out, and was doing the best I could.

Everyone has their own unique leadership style - a style that works best for you, specifically. Sure, there will be times to adapt your behavior for the most successful outcome and be more outspoken and direct. 

AND - if that's not who you are...and that's who you're trying to be all the time...you're going to waste a lot of energy and not be nearly as effective as a leader.

Your signature leadership style is based on a variety of factors including: 

  • personal strengths
  • personal preferences
  • management style
  • emotional intelligence
  • social awareness

It takes some work to figure these factors out. You have to dig a little bit! You have to invest time and energy looking at you - through feedback, coaching, and personal development. You have to be open to looking into your blind spots - to learn those things everyone knows around you...that you aren't aware of yourself.

I really believe that the most important leadership skill you can work on developing as a coach is your own self awareness! If you lack self awareness then you'll have no idea the impact you're making on your athletes - both positive and negative.

Over the years - through coaching and working as faculty for NOLS - I've kept a running list of the things I see great leaders do:

1. Great leaders use their strengths effectively across a broad range of people and personalities. They are able to connect with people who are different from them - without negative judgement.

2. Great leaders know their strengths and preferences. They are flexible enough to be able to adapt their behavior based on the situation to have a more successful outcome. 

3. Great leaders are more transparent with their decision-making. They let people in on what they are thinking so people know what to expect.

4. Great leaders build trust by being open, vulnerable, and accountable. They own their mistakes, apologize when they are wrong, and make amends. 

5. Great leaders foster effective communication skills within the group. They improve the quality of the interactions amongst the team. 

6. Great leaders are constantly expanding. They are generous by assuming the best from the intentions, words, and actions of others.

7. Great leaders help create, support, and inspire other great leaders in a group! They create a safe environment where everyone can learn, grow, and succeed.

8. Great leaders help people achieve goals and dreams. They empower every member of the team with the appropriate amount of responsibility and tap into the group's individual and collective strengths. 

What else would you add to this list? I'd love to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments below.