What is Leadership? (Part 1)

VKS 1-8-13By Verinder Syal

What is leadership?

Leadership is ultimately an event: opportunity meeting preparedness.

Leadership is an essential workplace skill for engineering managers and one of the most difficult to learn. Effective leaders empower their followers whether they are employees, coworkers, or peers. Leaders are secure and confident, yet humble. Reaching this level of self-development takes time and effort—building skills, polishing the inner compass, and understanding yourself—but this preparation is essential to make use of leadership opportunities when they arise.

Today I will address what leadership is and how to start applying the basics of leadership to your everyday life. In a later post we will discuss what separates good leaders from bad leaders and how to analyze your leadership skills yourself.

 The Cornerstones of Leadership

Most leaders share a variety of traits such as intelligence, vision, passion, execution, charisma, and compassion to name a few; however, over the years I have come to believe that three key attributes differentiate the good leaders from the “misleaders.”

Character: Two quotes stick in my mind from True North. The first is David McCullough’s assessment that “character is the single most important asset of a president” and David Gergen’s observation that “. . . character without capacity usually means weakness in a leader, but capacity without character means danger.” I have come to believe that these are profoundly true statements.

Focus: Where is the focus in a goal or project? Is it on something bigger than me, or is it just on me despite all of the rhetoric? Was Lincoln’s focus on “The Union Must Survive” or “I must hold on to power?” The difference is that simple.

People: Good leaders surround themselves with strong independent thinkers who are wiling to speak up, even challenge them when needed. Misleaders surround themselves with sycophants and flatterers. This is where self-confident plays a role: are you willing to accept constructive criticism from those around you?

 Becoming a leader today.

Now that you know the traits of being a leader, how can you start applying them and developing this skills set today?

1. Use EVERY opportunity wisely. Live life to the fullest and be thankful for the gifts that have been endowed upon you. Come to grips with the cards you have been dealt. Stop whining; start living. Bravery is not the absence of fear, to think so is foolish, but fear cannot be the guiding compass of your life. Bravery is optimism, a zest for life, a need to grow, a thirst for the truth, and a deep desire to serve, to truly leave every place a touch better than you found it.

2. Take Action. Get involved and make a difference. Do something bigger than yourself. This is possible in every thing you do, and often is simply a matter of attitude. Think about the moments in work or your day-to-day life when you can make a difference. Steve Jobs talked about putting a dent in the universe. I suggest you start “denting” your experiences starting today.

 To sum up

Leadership is an event that occurs when preparedness meets opportunity. Leadership, in my opinion, is limited to a particular challenge at a point in time. Sometimes those skills might be useful in similar situations elsewhere, but leadership does have limits.

In the next post I will discuss how to know what those limits are and how to make sure you’re being a leader and not a misleader, but for now keep in mind that preparedness is up to you. Work diligently on getting prepared and the opportunity will arise. It always does.

Verinder Syal is an entrepreneur having started Filterfresh of Chicago and Syal Consult. He also teaches highly regarded classes on Entrepreneurship, and Leadership at Northwestern and guest lectures at Loyola Universities in the Chicagoland area. He has run both large companies and small ones at Quaker Oats, Stella Foods, Rymer Seafood.

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