This Is What Separates Truly Great Leaders From the Rest of the Pack

Too often, we confuse the roles of a “leader” with that of a “manager”.

What makes a good leader? originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Luis Elizondo, Director of Special Programs at to the Stars, on Quora:

Who comes to mind when you picture a leader?

Maybe it’s the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, sitting behind an expensive oak desk on Wall Street, protecting the company’s bottom line. Or, you might picture a uniformed military officer, barking orders at subordinates. Or maybe you fancy the idea of an ancient conqueror on horseback, swinging their sword wildly through a horde of barbarians while arrows sail above their head and shields crash into each other.

The truth of the matter is, most people have an idea of what they think a “leader” should look like but few can explain the actual qualities and traits that make someone a leader.

Qualities such as decisiveness, intelligence, and savvy have been the subject of countless books on the matter. In fact, there is an entire industry now dedicated to coaching up-and-coming “leaders” where they explore in great detail the supposed traits and even habits of what makes a good leader.

In reality, however, it’s not so easy to define. Rarely are traits such as compassion, humility, and measuredness considered leadership traits, and instead often relegated to those of humanitarians and philanthropic pursuits.

I’ve spent my career, and a good portion of my adult life, in the National Security arena and with the military. Over the years, I have seen my share of both good leaders and those who think they are good leaders. Many individuals in this second category believe that a good leader is one who wins wars when in fact, a good leader is one who can avoid going to war in the first place.

Too often, we confuse the roles of a “leader” with that of a “manager,” and even then, sometimes those who claim to be a good manager are not even capable of that.

Here’s what true leadership really entails:

In order to lead, you must first learn to know what it’s like to follow.

Having been to war several times, I’ve seen a few great leaders and I’ve seen many people who thought they were great leaders.

With the latter, it often had disastrous consequences. Although not always the case, many times those officers who were indeed good leaders, often had prior experience as enlisted members before becoming an officer. It was this prior experience that allowed these good leaders to better relate to the men and women under their charge. It also allowed them to appreciate the impact each decision had on the safety and wellbeing of the troops and the sacrifice involved with obeying orders and the consequences of bad decisions. As such, decisions made by these individuals were usually made based on ensuring the welfare of individuals and mission accomplishment instead of self-idealized values of supposed leadership qualities.

This understanding also translated into better performance and morale by the troops, which also meant quicker and more successful mission accomplishment with fewer casualties.

A real leader isn’t in the position for status, money, or control. They’re in it because they are passionate about the individuals they work with and are humbled by the responsibilities it requires to keep them safe and successful.

An effective leader understands the difference between a tactical loss and a strategic gain.

In the corporate world, this means that a leader will encourage even their best performers to seek career-enhancing opportunities and training even at the detriment of the office’s performance because ultimately it benefits the overall organization in the long run. Of course, a good leader picks up the slack!

A true leader always puts others before themselves and is sympathetic to senior-level desires, but ultimately, their allegiance is to the people they work alongside.

Here’s a simple test I often explained to junior staff for figuring out whether someone is the real deal:

Do they say the words “me,” “mine,” or “my” in the context of the greater office? If so, they’re probably not a leader. For example, when you hear someone say things like “my office,” “my staff,” “my people,” or “my mission,” that should be a warning sign. A true leader will use the words “our”, “us,” and “we” instead.

The differences here are subtle, but they say a lot about the psyche of an individual and their true motivations. Psychologically, a good leader understands that the mission’s success depends on the larger group’s ability to succeed, not just the leader.

Leaders often hate to lead but love the people and the mission.

Many people would be surprised to know that George Washington, our nation’s first President and arguably the most instrumental leader of the American Revolution, never wanted to be President.

In fact, upon being unanimously elected by the electoral college, this self-described introvert told his friend, “Movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” The reason for this was Washington’s understanding of the enormous responsibility this new position required.

Upon accepting the position of President, Washington said, “While I realize the arduous nature of the task which is conferred on me and feel my inability to perform it, I wish there may not be reason for regretting the choice. All I can promise is only that which can be accomplished by an honest zeal.”

As much of a contradiction as this may seem, this is precisely the qualities one would want in a President.


Here’s how to weed out the pretenders:

* Real leaders don’t want to be in charge. They are committed to the “mission,” not submission. They focus on the responsibilities and not the privileges.

* They don’t need to remind others they are in charge. People follow because they want to, not because they are told to. Leaders accept all failures and give credit to others for all successes.

* They rely on other voices. They value dissenting views and incentivize other perspectives while encouraging alternative analysis.

* They sacrifice for their subordinates. They provide opportunities beyond what is given to themselves. They enable others to succeed and advance beyond their immediate office even if the leader has to pick up the slack.

* They know the difference between diplomacy and politics. Negotiations are done for the collective good, not to the benefit of the leader. They avoid gossip but value intelligence and insight.

* They are risk aware, not risk-averse. They minimize personnel risk over personal risk. They balance potential opportunities with potential consequences.


If you find yourself in a leadership position and feel like a fish out of water, it’s probably a good sign. It may mean your motives are pure.

Real leaders understand success depends on the people around them.

Instead of chasing status and salary, real leaders realize people are the most important asset of any company or organization.

They don’t compete with their co-workers or obsess over garnering the most praise from peers, executives, or board members. Instead, they’re concerned about fostering an atmosphere where everyone thrives, even if it’s at the leader’s own personal or professional detriment.

If you want to see what leadership looks like, watch kids on the playground. The real leader isn’t the one dividing friends into teams or giving out orders to his or her clique. Instead, it’s the kid who makes sure no one is left out. It’s the kid who runs over when someone sprains an ankle, asks if they’re okay, and offers to get some ice or share half of his sandwich. The leader gives an umbrella to a friend while the leader gets wet. Ultimately, it is those kids who express kindness, mercy, and courage, even when it’s unpopular.

Let’s take the example of Ms. Kesha Thomas, a teenage, African-American woman who in 1996 found herself in the middle of an angry KKK demonstration in Ann Arbour, MI. As the demonstration turned increasingly ugly, one of the KKK members was chased by a rightfully angry mob down the street. As the mob closed in on the KKK member, in an unbelievable act of courage, Ms. Thomas threw herself on top of the KKK member, shielding him from certain attack and serious injury, or worse. Why would a complete stranger protect a racist and bigot who has sworn to be her enemy? Because that day Ms. Thomas taught the world once again that leadership comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders.

Investing in other human beings over yourself is a fundamental leadership quality.

Similar scenes play out every day in our offices, social groups, and even in the highest offices of the U.S. Government.

I can’t count how many times I have seen office managers assign poor performance ratings to their subordinates while recommending higher ratings for themselves. A true leader recognizes the fact that it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure the professional success of every member of the team. Until that occurs, a real leader will refuse to accept any rating above their lowest performer’s rating.

Bottom Line: A real leader should both prosper and suffer with their team!

Over the last year, the media has often highlighted the fact that I was the “leader” of the Pentagon’s secretive Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), hunting UFOs for national security. In truth, however, the final assessment as to whether I was indeed a “leader” is not up to me and must be judged by those who I worked with.

The success of AATIP had less to do with me personally and more to do with the fact we had amazingly talented individuals working with us from all walks of life, experiences, and perspectives. These individuals were not only my colleagues, but they were also my friends and even buddies in the fox-hole.

Leadership is a lifelong pursuit–a sacred quest that may never be achieved. But in the end, it is the pursuit itself that counts.


Article originally posted at Inc

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