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The ABCs of Great Leadership

From A to Z, here’s what you need to know about being at the top.

By Victor Parachin

To become a great leader, you must know the common characteristics of all great leaders and you must spend time in acquiring those characteristics. Here are a few attributes of a great leader—from A to Z.

Attitude. The attitude you bring to life will be more important than what you face. Your attitude will determine whether something is positive or negative, is a burden or a blessing or is good or bad, and will determine your success or failure in life.

Believe. The night before Douglas MacArthur was to take his entrance exam for West Point, he was a nervous wreck. His mother encouraged him by saying: “You must believe in yourself, my son, or no one else will believe in you. Be self-confident, self-reliant, and even if you don’t make it, you will know you have done your best.” When the test scores were announced, he was No. 1 on the list.

Character. Be a person of integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Let your deeds match your creeds and your behavior line up with your belief. Think carefully about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

Determination. The difference between success and failure, between the impossible and the possible, lies in a person’s determination. Difficulties erode in the presence of fierce determination.

Enthusiasm. Cultivate enthusiasm. When times are tough, the chances slim and the odds long, it is enthusiasm that will energize you and propel you forward. The spirit of enthusiasm will lift you (and those around you) up during low times.

Failure. Expect some of this—it comes to every person sooner or later. Don’t let it demoralize you; rather, let it strengthen, toughen and mobilize you. Think about Washington Irving’s observation: “Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortunes, but great minds rise above them.”

Gratitude. Never fail to show your appreciation. Gratitude strengthens relationships, energizes colleagues and fortifies friendships. A leader who expresses gratitude and shows appreciation will always be surrounded by loyal companions.

Hope. Always let your hopes, not your hurts and handicaps, shape your future. Clare Booth Luce wisely observed: “There are no hopeless situations in life; there are only people who have grown hopeless about them.”

Influence. “A man leaves all kinds of footprints when he walks through life,” said writer Margaret Lee Runbeck. “Some you can see, like his children and his house. Others are invisible, like the prints he leaves across other people’s lives: the help he gives them and what he has said, his jokes, gossip that has hurt others and encouragement. A man doesn’t think about it, but everywhere he passes, he leaves some kind of mark.”

Joy. Balanced leaders live with joy. They know that life is a glorious gift and they allow themselves to be dizzy with joy and grateful for the many blessings that flow their way moment by moment and day by day. Also, they rejoice in the success of others.

Kindness. This is something practiced by the greatest of leaders. Toward others they are charitable, courteous, decent, gracious, hospitable and thoughtful. Kindness reaches minds, touches hearts and changes lives.

Learn. “There is only one corner of the universe where you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self,” wrote Aldous Huxley. Great leaders are lifetime learners.

Motivation. After author Mickey Spillane gained his first big publishing success, he decided to work less and play more. He took up residence at a popular seaside resort and partied a great deal. In the little time left over, he tried to write but found that ideas wouldn’t come. However, his bank account was shrinking steadily. Almost immediately, good ideas began to percolate in his mind. Out of necessity he began to write some of his best stories. The lesson: Don’t rest on your past successes. Keep yourself motivated.

Nip. Great leaders know the wisdom of nipping things in the bud, thereby preventing major issues from emerging. They appreciate the wisdom of Lao Tzu, who wrote the Tao Te Ching over 25 centuries ago as a handbook for leaders in ancient China. Stressing the importance of prevention, Tzu said: “Deal with the difficult while it is still easy. Solve large problems when they are still small.”

Opportunity. Every adversity contains opportunity. Before the Civil War, Edmund McIlhenny operated a sugar plantation and a salt works on Avery Island, La. During the war, he was forced to flee. Upon his return, his fields and salt works were in ruins. One of the few things left were some hot Mexican peppers that had re-seeded themselves in the kitchen garden. He started experimenting with the ground peppers to make a sauce that would liven up his bland diet. His creation is the world-famous Tabasco sauce.

Perseverance. “With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable,” wrote the 18th century British philanthropist Thomas Foxwell Buxton. Leaders understand this.

Question. Peter Drucker, known worldwide for his study and insights into leadership and management, says one of the qualities of highly effective leaders is their ability to ask questions. They constantly ask: “What are the organization’s mission and goals? What constitutes performance and results in this organization?”

Respect. Effective leaders always respect others. They listen respectfully even when the speaker is offering a different viewpoint. Author and management consultant Judith M. Bardwick said, “The best leaders don’t waste other people’s brains. Leaders need a core sense of confidence that allows them to be comfortable receiving input, including disagreement, from others.”

Struggle. Strong leaders are prepared to struggle through hard times and see things to a more logical conclusion. The darkest days in the life of author Thomas Carlyle took place when his friend, philosopher John Stuart Mill, told him that the manuscript Carlyle had given him to read had been destroyed. It was the only copy and had taken Carlyle months of time in research and writing. Carlyle alternated between rage and grief. One day he looked out of his window and saw bricklayers at work. “It came to me,” he wrote later, “that as they lay brick on brick, so could I still lay word on word, sentence on sentence.” Picking up his pen he began to rewrite The French Revolution.

Trustworthy. While Jim Copeland was CEO of the multibillion-dollar Deloitte Touche accounting firm, those who worked closest with him admired him for his trustworthiness. He demanded that Deloitte audit every expense report he turned in. He ended each year by writing a $500 personal check to the company to cover his personal use of the copy machine.

Unite. Great leaders have great teams. They are able to rally people and gain support for their vision and goal. Leaders team up for success.

Values. Those who lead effectively have values beyond mere materialism. They value their family, friends, colleagues, even competitors. “No one who is a lover of money, a lover of pleasure, or a lover of glory is a lover of man,” wrote the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

Words. Leaders choose their words carefully. They know that what they say can inspire or injure, hurt or heal, wound or win over.

X. The letter “x” is the mathematical symbol for the unknown. Those who lead are not intimidated by the unknown. In spite of uncertainty, they move forward into uncharted waters.

Yearn. Leaders have a strong desire to continue thinking, learning, growing, developing and expanding. They keep challenging themselves and realize that yearning should never end.

Zoom. Leaders zoom in on what’s important and what’s not. They separate the trivial from the urgent, the necessary from the superfluous, and always see the bigger picture.

Victor Parachin is a contributor to Advisor Today.


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