The Trait All Great Leaders Share

Photo by Kirit Vora

Photo by Kirit Vora

We say that leaders have vision. They see possibilities in the everyday and in people. They have foresight. They have the ability envision the impossible and turn it into the inevitable. Leaders have insight. They make connections between the unconnectable by seeing their true nature underneath the surface.

More than any other sense, we use a lot of words relating to “sight” when it comes to leadership.

”The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.” — John Scully

Leaders are not defined by the role they’re in but by the person they are. But in business, we often define leaders by their role and then expect them to make miracles happen. However, many people land in positions of authority not because they have vision to an impossible future, but because they can get things done today. They are able to see one step ahead, negotiate or barrel through obstacles and execute tasks. This is important! As Thomas Edison once wrote: “Vision without execution is hallucination”. Visionaries are great, but without the ability to translate that into action, they remain on the sidelines.

What inspires people to new heights however is more elusive. It’s chaotic out there – we have phones and tablets and iMessages and social media (Youtube reports that 60 hours of videos are uploaded every minute) – and all are buzzing for our attention. The overwhelming access to information has truly transformed the world and has been, on the whole, a positive force.

But goodness, it is confusing and in any given moment, this mountain of data threatens to topple over on us. And in the midst of this chaos, when it’s hard to see what the next hour will bring (forget about the 5 year plan!), someone steps forward and says, “I see” with such authority that we pause and listen. More than intellectually though, we are intrigued emotionally and spiritually. So we respond, “Show me”.

And if what they see compels us, we step forward and glimpse a future they see so clearly. And we take another step forward until the vision surrounds us and pulls us forward with it.

This isn’t always good. Some people see terrible things and somehow convince people that if they keep following a thread of lies, there will be a truth at the end that will make it all worthwhile. But great leaders see something better than exists today and it is compelling.

“The very essence of leadership is [that] you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”— Father Theodore Hesburgh

People often ask how they can develop their leadership skills. Here’s my response: what percentage of your day do you spend thinking about how the world impacts you versus how you impact the world?

Leadership requires introspection or looking inwards, but it excels at looking outwards. It sees other people, truly sees them. It sees people not in comparison to its own preconceptions or biases, but who the person truly is. The best leaders can help individuals see themselves and what they are capable of.

This is important because there’s a limit to how much technology can drive productivity. It’s not an endless reserve like we once thoughts oil or water were. There’s a constraint. But there isn’t yet a defined limit to human potential. It is endlessly renewable and stretchable, but it likes its current shape. A vision of the possible helps the human spirit stretch out of its comfort zone, to bypass the fear of change and to take that step forward.

So many people spend their time worrying about how the world is impacting them – what their manager or staff or colleagues think about them. But a few understand that they impact the world too. That their actions, words and vision are changing others. The moment that happens, leadership is born.

We can put practices into place to help us see. Manage by walking around is standard advice for leaders. But what does that mean? Look at people as they work – are they excited? Sluggish? Frustrated? Look at body language in 1:1s. Ask people about themselves. Build in time throughout your day to be conscious of others and soon it will become part of your DNA.

Build time for yourself. Sit back, close your eyes and imagine the future. Keep pushing yourself to think bigger. What does it look like? Why is it better than today? How are your people, colleagues, customers or shareholders reacting? Make it three-dimensional. Describe it to yourself. Then start describing it to others. See how they respond to you.

Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations. —Peter Drucker

We can all see. But how many of us are looking?

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