What makes an effective leader?

What makes an effective leader?

The discussion about what makes one an effective leader is one that mankind has been engaged with for many centuries. In all civilization of men, there have been people that have taken the lead of groups of people, and these people have followed their leaders, be it by force or by choice.

Bernard Bass states that “leadership is one of the world’s oldest preoccupation, and that leaders such as prophets, priests, chiefs, and kings served as symbols, representatives, and models for their people and had an important part in the development of society. (Bass, 1990)

Mankind’s search for leaders has never ceased, although the characteristics they attribute to leaders have changed a bit over time.

For me, an effective leader is someone that has the following characteristics;

To thy own self be true” (Hamlet by Shakespeare). This describes the very heart of authenticity; a leader being truth to himself and to those he leads. An authentic leader lives by high standards of honesty, transparency and openness towards all he works with. His actions inspire others to improve their selves and commit more for the cause. I believe authentic leaders have a high degree of emotional intelligence, and are not afraid to show their own emotions or to deal with the emotions of those around them.

Interpersonal skills
Strong interpersonal skills are essential for any leader. The leader must clearly communicate goals, inform everyone about the importance of their role and make sure that everyone is aligned with the organizational goals.

Other important interpersonal skills an effective leader has developed are negotiating, decision making and assertiveness.

Servant leadership
This is the act of being ready to serve even as you lead. This is not only a show of humility but also a show of ability to do well in the shoes of the people you are leading.

Servant leadership is one of the proven effective ways for leaders to gain the respect that is due to them. Every leader should prove that they can handle what they expect their followers are asked to do. Effective leaders show that in the first place they are there to serve those they lead, not to boss them around.

Effective leaders know how to motivate others to get into action. They realize that this starts with self-motivation, finding their inner strength and guiding others to be able to do the same.

People expect a leader to offer the motivation and the emotional strength needed to empower others to continue or complete a difficult task.

Ethical conduct
In my opinion, ethical behavior is one of the most important traits of a effective leader. As a leader, one should always choose for the right path, set the right example and always do the right thing, no matter what happens or how hard it is. Doing the right thing could be defined as always staying within the boundaries of the law, and what is socially accepted. A true leader has respect for the ethical beliefs and values as well as for the dignity and rights of everyone around him (or her).

Leadership cultivation
An effective leader realizes that no man lives forever and that one of his important tasks is succession planning. When a leaders states that he (or she) cannot take a step back because there is no one to fill his shoes, this means that this leader has done a poor job in securing the leadership of the organization. As an effective leader, one should spend time and resources providing coaching and guidance to others in order to develop the skills needed to be able to assume the leadership position whenever that is needed.

In my opinion, everyone can assume a leadership position, but to be a real effective leader, the above mentioned characteristics are very important.

Besides these characteristics, an effective leader also knows that based on the specific situation he is in, a certain leadership style will be required. This can be derived from the leadership types as defined by Kurt Lewin (Kurt Lewin, 1930).

For instance, in a crisis situation where immediate decisions and fast actions are required the best leadership style would be an autocratic leadership style. In this case the leader takes all the decisions without consulting team members.

If a leader wishes to create more involvement, he can include team members in the decision-making process. Although the leader still takes the final decision, everyone on the team gets to give their input and share their opinion on the matter. This is known as the democratic leadership style.

A Laissez-faire leader gives his team members to fully decide on how they will do their work, what deadline they will set and how they will deliver results. This leadership style works best in an organization of professionals, like a legal or a consultancy firm.

Leading volunteers
In addition to characteristics of effective leaders and the three leadership styles, I would also like to elaborate a little bit on leading volunteers. My reason for this is because I see a very important difference in leading a team of people who are paid to the work and volunteers. Since volunteers are not paid for their work, but do it for some intrinsic reason, it is even more important that leaders are able to motivate and inspire team members. Someone leading a team of volunteers must guide the team member into finding and holding on to the “wildly important goals” for both the organization as for the individual.

In the past 15 years I have taken various (national and international) leadership positions within a voluntary organization (JCI / Jaycees) and I have learned that the most effective way to get things done is when you are able to create the alignment between the individual’s personal goals and the goals of the organization.


Finally, I fully agree (and live by) the following quote by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu about the best leader.

“To lead people, walk beside them …
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate…

When the best leader’s work is done the people say,
We did it ourselves!”

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