What Does Great Leadership Look Like?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn

I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago about her relationship. She was expressing how frustrated she was with her partner, saying “I wish he would just respect me more.” She kept using that word—“respect.”

“What does that look like?” I asked her. She looked at me a little puzzled, so I clarified. “What does ‘respect’ look like to you? What does it sound like?”

After thinking for a moment, my friend replied thoughtfully, “I guess I wish he’d ask me my opinion more. And he doesn’t really say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when asking me for a favor. I wish he’d do that more too.”

“Have you ever asked him to do those specific things for you more?” I asked her. After thinking for another moment, she replied, “No, I never really thought to. I just go on being disappointed and hope he just gets better…and sometimes I think maybe we’re just not right for each other.”

This reminds me of many conversations I’ve had about leaders within organizations. So often, we want them to be great leaders, to exemplify the things that we think make them great. Then, when they don’t, we resign ourselves to thinking, “Maybe they’ll get better,” or, “Maybe they weren’t cut out to lead after all.”


Do, not Be

A quick Google search for “what makes a great leader?” returns several lists of qualities, like:

  • Integrity
  • Self-Awareness
  • Empathy
  • Courage
  • Respect (my personal favorite)

Although I’m sure most of us would agree these words do describe great leaders, they’re missing a critical piece: they aren’t observable. If you ask ten people what “respect” looks like, you’ll probably get ten descriptions, all run through the filters of each individual’s experiences, opinions, attitudes, and hardwiring. In fact, I did this not too long ago in a session.

“What does respect mean to you?” I asked a small group of leaders in a team chartering conversation. We were working to build a set of agreements this team could be accountable to in working together, and one participant had suggested their first agreement be “be respectful.”

Another leader piped up, “It means being polite and courteous. It’s things like not interrupting and knowing how to communicate in a way people feel good about.”

Then, another said, “Well to me, it means telling it like it is. Don’t sugarcoat things. If you have to tell me something or give me feedback, just say it. Respect me enough to be honest with me.” Ah, the plot thickens! Two people, two wildly different conceptions of “respect.”


Simply put, the trap we fall into—and push our leaders into—is describing great leadership with personal qualities, or things that a person should be. Be honest, be courageous, be respectful. While those things sound lovely, they are hard to define, hard to measure, hard to train, and hard to be accountable for.


Leadership, within the context of an organization, is a job function: it is an intentional practice of engaging others to get the best results they can out of them. We know great leaders get great results: teams who rate their leaders as highly effective tend to be more successful. So, let’s think of leadership the way we think of other results-oriented job functions: not as a set of qualities that a person should be, but as a set of observable behaviors a person needs to do. Verbs, not adjectives.


Capable, Effective Leaders

Many organizations have attempted to answer the question of “what does a great leader do?” with a set of leadership competencies. According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), leadership competencies are “leadership skills and behaviors that contribute to superior performance, [and they can be used to] identify and develop [the] next generation of leaders.” Typical leadership competencies get a little closer to the “do” and “say” of leadership:

  • Managing change
  • Taking risks and innovating
  • Managing work
  • Demonstrating ethics and integrity
  • Communicating effectively

Even so, they still leave a lot to the imagination. What does a leader do to manage change? What does a leader say or ask to communicate effectively? How does a leader demonstrate ethics and integrity?

Enter: Leader Capabilities. It’s a small word change with a giant impact: competency implies sufficient knowledge, skill and judgment. Capability implies competency PLUS access to the tools, resources, and environment necessary to put that competency into practice. Leader Capabilities are a way to draw the clearest picture of what great leaders do, as well as what they need to do it well.

If I think about my current leader, I’d say he is competent at the things listed above, but they don’t really describe what makes him successful. Let’s zoom in on that last one: “communicating effectively.”

If you asked me what my leader does to show he is an effective communicator, I’d tell you he:

  • Listens thoroughly to others
  • Asks thoughtful questions to understand problems, situations, and others’ perspectives
  • Provides feedback in a timely and effective manner
  • Communicates to suit a wide audience in a way that is easy to understand and remember
  • Encourages openness and diversity of thought

These behaviors are the leading indicators of great communication, the activities necessary to achieve it.

This is where we also bring in tools, resources and environment: measurement, training, coaching and talent management, and solid career pathing. That is because these are also behaviors that can be measured, built and supported in a training environment, reflected upon and coached for further development, and evaluated when it comes time for annual reviews or promotions. It’s all about behavior—how it’s built, how it’s measured, and how to make it last.


It starts with self-awareness

At ADVISA, we have believed since our founding that great leadership starts with self-awareness. Self-awareness enables a person to manage themselves effectively by leaning into their natural strengths and adjusting their behavior to compensate for their blind spots. Self-management empowers a leader to better engage with others, and the better they do that, the better they (and the people they lead) can drive business results. These four areas—Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Engaging Others, and Driving Business Results—are the four areas of focus in our pursuit to answer the question, “What do great leaders do?”

Within each area, we have identified several Capabilities, which are sets of tangible, observable behaviors that build relationships and create effective work environments. (The behaviors I listed as things my leader does, by the way, are all behaviors that fall under our Capability of Communicates Effectively.) These capabilities, in turn, help us partner with organizations to:

  • Diagnose an organization’s current state using engagement data, then define what the desired state looks and sounds like within their unique cultures
  • Design unique, impactful experiences that enable the specific behaviors and habits identified by the organization AND the support systems to make them last
  • Deploy our team of expert consultants, coaches, and facilitators to deliver those experiences and measure the behavior change they create

Now is a crucial time for organizations to ask themselves, “what do effective, capable leaders do and say at our organization? How do we enable to them to do and say those things? How do we keep them accountable and measure their effectiveness?” It all starts with behavior.


Speaking of behavior: the other day, I checked in with my friend after our conversation about her troubles with her partner. “I tried asking him to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ more, and to invite my opinion about things,” she told me.

“What happened?” I asked.

Smiling, she said, “He apologized and said he’ll make more of an effort…and he has, so far. I can tell he’s working on it. That’s not even the coolest thing, though.”

“Oh, yeah?” I asked, “What was that?”

“He actually thanked me for talking to him like that and being specific. He said he wasn’t really raised in a family that used ‘manners’ like that—if they had opinions, they’d just shout them out, and they showed each other appreciation in other ways. He just needed some guidance on what to do for me and said he appreciated that I gave him that chance.”

Imagine doing that for leaders at work: giving them the chance to be great by showing them what great leaders do and giving them the tools to do it too.



If you enjoyed this article, you should check out “Make Time for Personal and Leadership Development” also by Learning Experience Consultant Nora Elder.

Additionally, you may be interested in “An Engaged Leader is a Present Leader” by ADVISA’s Chairman, Bob Wilson.