The Three Elements of A Great Leader

You can pay people to perform. You can’t pay them to excel.

Ever since the beginning of time, people have been looking for the secrets of leadership. They’ve been looking for those things that will bring out the very best in others.

Well there aren’t any secrets. You can read all the books on leadership, and you will find most authors say about the same thing. They just use different words.

There are certain traits that great leaders exhibit. To the extent you can master and exhibit the same traits, you’ll be more effective in getting others to excel.

Let’s see if you can guess the first trait. Let me ask you, “How many great, really great teachers did you have in all your years of schooling?” Most people tell me “one two, three, or four.”

Then let me ask you, “How many teachers did you have over the years?” Most people tell me “dozens.” Now that’s strange. It’s also sad. You had dozens of teachers, yet so few of them were really great.

When I probe a bit deeper, when I ask people what made those teachers great, I usually get the same answer. Can you guess? They usually say, “Those teachers cared.”

That’s it. CARING. It’s the first trait exhibited by almost every great leader. It may sound like a very soft touchy-feely thing, but it works. As Max Lucado says in his book, And the Angels Were Silent, “The people who make a difference are not the ones with the credentials but the ones with the concern.”

Barry Alvarez knew that. In fact, he was named National Coach of the Year in 1993, the year his University of Wisconsin football team won the Rose Bowl.

Prior to that, however, he had to turn this losing, dispirited team around. He had to turn the players’ attitudes and actions around.

He started doing that the very first day the freshmen players came in. He gave them each a pencil and paper and told them to write their parents. They were to tell their parents they loved them.

Alvarez knew that if he could strengthen the emotional expression the players gave their parents, it would be easier for the players to say they cared about each other.

After the players were there a while, he would bring them together for some “team building.” He would ask each of them to talk about the teammate they most respected. Often times, the comments would come as a surprise, but they always built the team.

One player, for example, picked out a kid who wasn’t even there on a scholarship. He said, “I respect him the most because he’s been here for years and busted his tail all this time and never complained.”

Alvarez says CARING leads to teamwork, and teamwork leads to winning.

Perhaps no one is more recognized for leadership than Abraham Lincoln. And when you examine all the books written about him, you will find a lot more emphasis given to his CARING than his strategic planning, brilliant programs, and media savvy.

As an example, President Lincoln often visited hospitals to talk to wounded soldiers during the Civil War. One time a doctor pointed out a soldier near death, and Lincoln went to his bedside. He asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

The soldier didn’t recognize Lincoln, and with some effort he was able to whisper, “Would you please write a letter to my mother?”

A pen and paper were provided, and the President carefully wrote down what the young man said. “My dearest mother, I was badly hurt while doing my duty. I’m afraid I’m not going to recover. Don’t grieve too much for me, please. Kiss Mary and John for me. May God bless you and father.”

The soldier was too weak to continue so Lincoln signed the letter for him. He added, “Written for your son by Abraham Lincoln.”

The young man asked to see the note and was astonished when he discovered who had written it. “Are you really the President?” he asked. “Yes, I am,” Lincoln replied quietly. Then he asked if there was anything else he could do.

“Would you please hold my hand? It will help to see me through to the end,” said the soldier. And so, in that hushed room, the tall gaunt President took the boy’s hand in his and spoke words of encouragement until the boy passed away.

The second trait of great leaders, or those who get others to excel, is INTEGRITY. In other words, they can be trusted to tell the truth. They tell the truth in good times and bad, and they tell the truth whether or not it makes them look good or bad.

In a sense, truth telling is a way of showing honor. It says people deserve to know what is happening, why it’s happening, and what the next steps will be.

And telling the truth, right up front, is a way of expressing deep respect. Great leaders know that their silence, double talk, or delayed truth telling would create unnecessary anxiety in people, and they respect people too much to put them through that kind of stress.

It’s no wonder that INTEGRITY works. People feel honored and respected when their leader continually tells them the truth. So they’ll keep on supporting their leader, even if they don’t always like what he has to say.

President Dwight Eisenhower put it this way: “The supreme quality for a leader is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office. If a man’s associates find him guilty of phoniness, if they find he lacks forthright integrity, he will fail.”

And finally, for today’s “Tuesday Tip,” great leaders who get others to excel have HIGH EXPECTATIONS. They don’t let people get by with mediocrity.

Think about it. Think back to high school. Think about the teacher who let you goof off or slide by. You might have enjoyed the easy ride while you were getting it, but you also lost respect for yourself and that teacher. No one can really feel good about herself when she just “gets by.”

By contrast, think of the teacher who made you work, work, work. She kept saying “You can do it, and you’re going to do it.” You may have disliked that teacher for a while, but that was the teacher you respected the most, and that was the one who brought the best out of you.

Great leaders believe in people, and so they expect a lot from people. The author Studs Terkel gives one example. He was the youngest of ten children, and his father died when he was in the seventh grade. So his mother raised all the kids by herself. She worked as an assembly line worker and as a cleaning lady, and she set the example of hard work and HIGH EXPECTATIONS.

Studs said if you came home without homework, she would ask, “You have homework?” If you said “No,” she’d say, “You know everything?” Again if you said “no,” she’d say, “Well, you have homework now.”


Action:  Take a look at the three traits of leadership: CARING, INTEGRITY, and HIGH EXPECTATIONS. How much of those traits do you possess and exhibit? Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, ten being the best. Then ask two of your colleagues or employees to rate you. If you find a gap between your scores and their scores, especially in those areas where others rate you lower than you rate yourself, ask them what you would have to do to get a higher score.