Put the 14,000 definitions or descriptions of leadership you have heard to the side for a moment, and let’s get real. Conjure up the image of the leader who has had the most significant impact on your life. Perhaps this leader is a parent or a close relative; perhaps a teacher, a counselor or a coach; or perhaps a manager or somebody you worked alongside early in your career.

When you ask people to think about those types of leaders, much of the mystique associated with leadership and effective influence somehow fades. As their memories are dusted off, you can see their body language change. First, they smile a reflective smile. Then, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, you witness the transformation people move through when they are experiencing déjà vu … all over again!

When they speak, their voices take on an unmistakable air of reverence. The stories they share describe compelling interactions that not only altered their behavior but transformed their perspective. The stories are different (of course) but are usually grounded in several central themes. For example:

Leaders are thoughtful. They think before they do. In the terms of emotional intelligence, they routinely exhibit impulse control. When you barge into their presence with your “hair on fire” because somebody didn’t do what they were supposed to do, and now you can’t do what you planned on doing, they listen. They empathize. They clarify. And they usually do all that without officially “taking your side.”

Then, they investigate. They get more information. They pinpoint the problem and frame it for you in a manner that allows you to take meaningful action. You wind up feeling good about your contribution to resolving the problem, and, whether you recognize it in the moment or not, you wind up learning that when problems occur, your perspective is but one of many that merit active consideration.

Second, and for lack of a better term, leaders adapt. As you reflect on your own experience, sometimes, those leaders flat-out told you what to do and watched you do it. This turned out to be great, because you had no earthly idea what you were up to and, for whatever reason, didn’t feel good about owning your ignorance.

Other times, those leaders recognized that you knew exactly what you were doing and seemed to love doing it. In those sets of circumstances, they checked in every now and then, but they trusted you to work your magic and deliver results. Then, there were times where you had a track record of identifiable success but felt apprehensive or anxious. Those situations were typically when they made time, sat you down and discussed options.

So, in total, it wasn’t so much about what those leaders did but, conversely, when they did what!

Finally, leaders manage movement. They accelerate the development of the people they train and redirect the regression of the people who have somehow misplaced their commitment or motivation. (This sounds so much easier than it really is!)

Good leaders can be tough to please when you are new, learning and finding your way. They hold you accountable for a level of performance that forces you to lean into your discomfort. Odd though it may seem, these leaders can have higher expectations for you than you have for yourself. It can be far easier to appreciate their efforts when you have realized your potential and recognize the role they played in your ability to do so.

Good leaders can also be tough to hide from when your effort declines. They detect the downward spiral (usually early on), and they leverage the relationship they have built with you over time to discuss it. Typically, they don’t talk much during these exchanges. They simply hold up a mirror of objective observations, ask you to look in it and explain why the images have changed recently. At that point, you find yourself coming to grips with your reality and making course corrections on your own.

With the tsunami of available information on leadership that is but one click away, it is easy to become overwhelmed, confused or both. When you find yourself at that crossroad, proceed as follows:

  1. Think of a successful leader you know.
  2. Identify why that leader had such a profound impact on you.
  3. Honor their legacy by imitating their actions.

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