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The Five Leadership Essentials

Lions and Leadership

I love NBA coach, Doc Rivers, and his leadership style that embodies essential leadership traits. Several years ago, he adopted the South African rallying cry “Ubuntu,” when bringing his team together after several losing seasons and adding a pair of high-profile players to his roster.

Loosely translated, Ubuntu means, “I am because we are.” It became the rallying cry for the Celtics 2008 championship. Goals aligned and egos were put aside in the pursuit of a common goal, inspired by a great leader and a single word.

Sterling W. Sill said, “It takes a human being to be a leader, and great leadership requires human beings at their best.”

Leaders Make Mistakes

Often we place our leaders on pedestals, forgetting that they are mere mortals called upon to stand out front and make decisions, and when they make mistakes, we are quick to criticize and cast blame.

Some would argue that we have a leadership crisis in America. Every news day has stories about corrupt politicians or corporate executives failing to live up to their charge.

Just because a person is willing to stand in front and say, “charge!” does not always make a leader.

Never Waste a Good Crisis

The age-old debate of whether great leaders are born or made still has merit because companies often must choose someone with a proven record of accomplishment versus someone with potential.

One of my favorite quotes is, “Never waste a good crisis,” and quite often, great leaders rise from difficult situations. Going through the fire of adversity shapes and molds leaders, purifying their impurities and refining their abilities.

When discussing leaders, a great quote from my youth comes to mind, “The same hammer that smashes pewter, molds steel.”

Are there certain traits that some possess which qualify them for leadership? If there are certain traits that all leaders should possess, are they developed or innate?

Five Leadership Essentials

I surveyed several people to ask about the essential traits of a great leader. I then compared that list against history’s great leaders and came up with five leadership essentials. A great leader is:


Essential Leader ChecklistDoing the right thing for the right reason, every time. Think about Abraham Lincoln’s struggles to end slavery. While faced with a divided and crumbling nation he stood strong on the principle of freedom and justice.

Even through great personal struggles, he remained true to his principles and brought a nation through some of its darkest moments.


Great leaders put the needs of others ahead of their own. Recently, I participated in a meeting where the organizations leader attended, but was not directly involved. He was there to support his team and provide service to those directly involved.

As the meeting progressed and tensions rose, he was quick to offer words of encouragement or get whatever the participants needed (sometimes it was as simple as a glass of water) so they could focus on the task.


Allowing others to shine without the fear of being outshone. Micromanagers do more to kill morale more than any other leadership style. People want to feel like their contribution matters and that they are valued.

Great leaders understand that. Google’s “20 Percent Time” philosophy is a great example of this. By allowing people time to work on projects that are not in their normal job description, the company has developed several new products, most notably Gmail.


We live in uncertain times and unpredictability does not instill calmness. Uncertainty leads to loss of confidence, loss of confidence leads to fear and fear leads to immobility.

People generally do not like change. Inconsistent leaders put people in a constant state of immobility because they are unsure of what lies around the next corner.


Tackling the tough problems shows commitment. Confrontational does not mean attacking or argumentative, it means addressing sensitive issues rather than sweeping them under the rug.

You cannot make everyone happy all of the time. Unpopular decisions are the norm for leadership, but being unwilling to make unpopular decisions undermines credibility.

Having difficult conversations is not always pleasant, but necessary for the health of a group or organization. When perceived injustices are not being addressed, team unity is compromised and leadership is branded as weak.

Take Away

The answer to the question whether leaders are born or made, is both. Leaders are born with certain qualities and abilities shaped through events and opportunities.

Like any other skill, leadership requires training, practice and a willingness to press forward. More important, like Ubuntu, leadership is not about self, it is about others.

In the words of Lao Tzu, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, we did it ourselves.”


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