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What Makes a Good Leader? What Makes a Great Leader?

What Makes a Good Leader

Good: Satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree.

Great: Unusual or considerable in degree, power, intensity, etc.  

In this CONNECT2Lead series focusing on Words to Lead by, we’ve explored the traits, characteristics, qualities, attributes, and behaviors of good leaders. Most of the content in this series describes “good” vs. “great” leadership. That’s because, by its very definition, greatness is unusual. It’s special and not as common as “good.” Also, aiming for the standard of great before achieving the standard of good isn’t feasible.

That’s not to say that greatness isn’t possible for you as a leader. Of course it is! Everything about leadership is a choice. If you choose to work toward greatness, you can and will be a great leader.

The differences between good and great often get measured by short-term results. But short-term impact and output isn’t a sufficient measure of a leader.

What Makes a Great Leader & How to Spot One in Action  

Graphic Showing Crossing a BridgeFirst and foremost, great leaders understand that leadership isn’t done in isolation. Great leaders aren’t great because of their own accomplishments or efforts. Great leaders aren’t celebrated because of what they’ve been and done on their own.

Great leaders are surrounded by others who are confident, competent, and capable of leading.


"The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things." - Ronald Reagan

You can spot a great leader by looking at the followers and constituents surrounding that leader. When great leadership is happening, you’ll see:

  • Distributed authority. People are empowered to make decisions, solve problems, and try new ways of doing things. There’s no bottleneck at the top because the leader has entrusted and delegated day-to-day decisions and tasks to members of the team. 
  • Because great leaders encourage experimentation and allow risk-taking, people are not afraid to try new processes and approaches to their work. Everyone is constantly and deliberately striving for continuous improvement in how things get done. 
  • High levels of engagement. When people are challenged, trusted, and confident, they are more engaged in their work. They feel more emotionally connected to the organization. They apply additional discretionary effort to their work because they care more about it. 
  • Clarity about priorities. Great leaders communicate what’s most important, what’s expected, and why it all matters. They coach and provide resources so people can develop and perform at high levels. Then they trust and allow others to align themselves and make choices that serve the top priorities. 
  • Collaboration and team camaraderie. Great leaders unify people around a central, common purpose. Members of the team understand that they’re stronger together. They see role modeling of behaviors that demonstrate trust and seek out diverse perspectives so that every voice is heard, every person is ennobled, and every person is a part of something bigger.  
  • Learning and development. The humility to continually learn and grow is valued by great leaders. They stretch themselves and provide opportunities for others to take on new challenges and get experience, too. 
  • Exceptional performance. Success comes from greatness… not the leader’s greatness, but the greatness that a great leader unleashes in others.


What you won’t see in environments where there’s great leadership: command and control, highly authoritative, or micro-managing leadership. You won’t see reactive responses with managers constantly putting out fires and at the mercy of the crisis du jour. You won’t see low morale and people doing the bare minimum to get by until they can get out. You won’t see infighting, finger pointing, entrenchment in the status quo, excuse making, or mistrust. 

Great leaders don’t luck into great teams. Even when they inherit a great team from another great leader, the greatness only lasts if the new leader is great. Otherwise, team members flee or regress.

How to Assess Your Own Leadership Greatness

Avoid the temptation to compare yourself to other leaders. Yes, you should notice what they do that makes them effective. And you should emulate those behaviors that people respond to, so long as you make them your own and authentically express your values through your behaviors. There’s more to it than copycatting what others say or do because leadership is an art. There’s an evidence-based framework of leadership behaviors you can access, but it’s up to you to choose the right mix and frequency of leadership behaviors.

Some of the emerging leaders I’ve worked with opt out of leadership greatness because, they say, “I could never be like ____” or “I don’t have the personality” or “I can’t do what ____ does.” These conclusions are drawn from the misunderstanding that there’s only one way to be a great leader. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To be a great leader, you have to know yourself and what matters most to you. You have to determine what values you want to consistently demonstrate through your actions. And you have to know the behaviors that cause others to want to follow a leader. Most importantly, you have to work at becoming a great leader. It takes practice. It doesn’t come automatically. There will be highs and lows, adjustments to make along the way, and discoveries about who you are and what kind of a leader you really want to be.

At the risk of sounding trite, this is a journey. It’s a profound one that’s worth taking even when the road gets a little rough or less traveled.

The comparisons that are more valid to make will be within yourself. Personal growth and development, even as a leader, merits self-examination and introspection. Everything about leadership boils down to simple choices. One of these choices is whether or not you will make changes that are, at times, uncomfortable.

This graphic illustrates just one set of choices you can make. It’s related to a previous post from this series about being more assertive as a leader. But it also applies more broadly to your effectiveness in getting things done through others as a leader (because, remember, GREAT leaders are surrounded by others who have been liberated to do great things, too).     

You can be effective by making the choices described in the purple column. But stretching toward greatness will require making the choices in the green column more often. These are the types of things you can do to facilitate greatness in others.

To assess your own leadership greatness (or gaps), make similar comparisons in all that you do. You’ll be effective as an individual contributor and may even be a good leader when you choose behaviors that get the job done. Leadership greatness involves making choices that look longer term and more broadly at the needs of others for development and ennoblement. 

To Continue Building Your Greatness as a Leader

If you’re in a place where you work with or for a great leader, don’t take that for granted. There’s a lot to learn from this leader, and you will thrive in this situation more than you can in one with a leader who’s not-so-great or may not even be a good one. When job hunting or considering a promotion, assess the opportunity with this criterion in mind – is the person you’ll be working for a great leader? One of the best paths to great leadership starts with working for a great leader. 

But don’t stop there. Observe, learn, and try on what you see from that leader. Don’t waste time making comparisons to others. Instead, compare what you’re doing today to what you were doing three months ago. Next, compare what you’re doing now to what you’d like to be doing differently in three months. Then make a choice to change. Make choices every day to choose leadership behaviors and people ennobling and enabling actions more often.

Learn to lead. Trust others and distribute leadership opportunities. Greatness is rare because people try to hoard it for themselves when, in fact, it only comes when its nurtured and shared with others.

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