Five things all great leaders believe

Think of a great leader. Really, stop for a moment and think. 

Who was the first person that came to mind? 

Was it a historical figure like Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy? Or was it a coach or teacher or manager who impacted your life personally, investing in your growth and development? Perhaps you thought of one of the great CEOs we’ve interviewed on the How Leaders Lead podcast, like Jamie Dimon or Indra Nooyi, whose leadership has shaped the course of companies with hundreds of thousands of employees all over the world. 

Most likely the person you thought of first was someone whose example inspired you, or even changed your life, in some meaningful way. And that’s the thing about great leaders. They do more than set the course, they contextualize it and give it meaning. Instead of “do it this way” they say, “here’s why we do it this way.” Great leaders are great at tapping into the why of the work we do. That’s because they tend to be big picture thinkers, who move comfortably from macro thinking to micro thinking and back again. Because they are big-picture people, almost every great leader will share these five beliefs, from the ball field to the board room and beyond.

The five beliefs all great leaders share:  

  1. Our teamwork makes the dream work. John C. Maxwell coined the phrase “teamwork makes the dream work” two decades ago, when he wrote a book by the same title. The full quote reads, “Teamwork makes the dream work, but a vision becomes a nightmare when the leader has a big dream and a bad team.” Great leaders don’t see “the team” as separate from themselves; they know they’re a part of it. So, if the team is functioning “badly”, the great leader will see themselves as part of the problem. Likewise, if the team is thriving, the leader will see themselves as only part of the solution. 
  2. Credit is for giving, not taking. Great leaders see the village it takes to achieve even the smallest wins, and they point to it, often. They credit the mentors who inspired them and the teammates who supported them, and all the people who make their leadership possible behind the scenes. Great leaders acknowledge these people out loud. They say thank you.
  3. Blame is a losing game. When problems arise or mistakes are made, great leaders don’t look for who to blame. Instead, they focus on accountability. Blame is about finding fault—typically with the actions of an individual or group. Blame feels personal and tends to be a toxic force, causing teams to be fearful or withhold or cover up mistakes. Once blame is assigned, there may be no more inquiry, no acknowledgment of the factors or systems that led to an error or failure. An accountability mindset recognizes that mistakes are par for the course. We are human beings, after all, imperfect, and doing the best we can with the cards we’re dealt. Accountability looks at the cards, not the person holding them, and approaches every setback as an opportunity to improve. Great leaders have an accountability mindset.  
  4. There’s always more to learn. Great leaders stay curious about the world around them and believe everyone has something to teach them. While they’re confident in their skills and experience, they never stop suspecting they could be better. You’ll find great leaders reading and studying and listening for new ways to approach their work. While they may at times seem inspiringly all knowing, great leaders are not know-it-alls.   
  5. All people deserve compassion and respect. Great leaders see people in their full humanity and treat them with dignity and respect. They do not see people as pawns, or obstacles, or means to an end. They understand that to earn respect, they must show respect, and to inspire passion, they must extend compassion. Great leaders believe in decency.

Great leaders are good people

Compassion, curiosity, accountability, and teamwork. Giving credit everywhere credit is due. While you may find examples of powerful people whose beliefs are not rooted in these ideas—you’d be hard pressed to call them great leaders. Great leaders are good people, first and foremost. They not only see the big picture, but all its complicated, interwoven, interesting and inspiring parts. 

Do you agree? Are there other beliefs you believe all great leaders have in common? Please tell us in the comments. We always have more to learn.

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