What Makes for An Effective Leader?

© Copyright Sandra Larson, Minneapolis, MN.

Sandra Larson, previous executive director of MAP for Nonprofits, was once asked to write her thoughts on what makes an effective leader. Her thoughts are shared here to gel other leaders to articulate their own thoughts on what makes them a good leader.

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Passion

An effective leader is a person with a passion for a cause that is larger than they are. Someone with a dream and a vision that will better society, or at least, some portion of it. I think a very key question has to be answered: Can someone who is a charismatic leader, but only to do evil or to promote herself, be a leader -- especially if she has a large following?” I would say no, she is a manipulator.

Also, without passion, a leader will not make the necessary courageous and difficult decisions and carry them into action. This is not to imply that all decisions are of this nature. But you can be sure, some of them will be. The leader without a passion for a cause will duck.

Holder of Values

Leadership implies values. A leader must have values that are life-giving to society. It is the only kind of leadership we need. This then also implies values that are embedded in respect for others. So often we think of people skills or caring about people as being “warm and fuzzy.” I think a leader can be of varying ‘warmth and fuzziness,” but a leader has to respect others. You can’t lead without it. Otherwise we are back to manipulation. Respect means also that one can deal with diversity -- a critical need for a leader in today’s world -- probably always has been, although diversity may have been more subtle in the homogenous societies of the past.

Vision

This is a bit different than passion, but in other ways it isn’t separable. If one doesn’t care about a subject, an issue, a system, then one won’t spend the time thinking about how it could or should be different. Yet, one could have strong feelings about something and not good ideas, particularly if she didn’t spend a good deal of time studying the topic. Thus a leader has to have some ideas about change, about how the future could be different. Vision then is based on two components that leaders also need: creativity and intellectual drive.

Creativity

One has to try to think out of the box to have good visions and to come up with effective strategies that will help advance the vision. I’d also add here the need for a sense of humor. It’s a creative skill that is in great need by leaders. We should read the funnies more!

Intellectual Drive and Knowledge

I believe a leader has to be a student. In general it is hard for a leader to be around enough other leaders to pick this up just through discussion, so I think a leader has to be a reader and a learner. Furthermore, I can’t see someone leading in a field they know nothing about.

Confidence and Humility Combined

While one can have a great vision and good ideas for change, and even passion for it, if one isn’t confident, then action will not occur. Without action, there is no change. Yet, paradoxically, a leader needs to have humility. No matter how creative and bright one is, often the best ideas and thinking are going to come from someone else. A leader needs to be able to identify that, have good people around who have these ideas. This takes humility, or at least lack of egocentricity. The leader is focused on the ends and doesn’t have to see herself always as the conduit or creator of the strategy to get to that end.

Communicator

None of the above assets will work for a leader if she can’t speak or write in a way to convince others that they should follow along, join the team, get on board. All the above gets to the old adage that a leader knows how to do the right thing and a manager knows how to do things right. But a leader has to be a manager, too. I don’t think these skills and abilities can be separated out very easily. Both need to be in the mix.

Thus a leader has to be some of the following, too:

Planner/Organizer

Someone who can see what needs to be done and help the team plan and organize the getting it done. Management is getting things done through people. While a writer or other visionary person may be very influential, even seminal for the cause of change, this is not quite my definition of a leader. A leader means to me, someone who is taking action, trying to get others to do something they want to see done.

Interpersonal Skills

Leaders must have the ability to act in an interpersonally competent manner, yet they also need to learn the techniques of good listening, honest and open communication, delegating, conflict resolution skills, etc., to actually get work done and keep the whole movement/organization/project together.

Other Business Skills

While in some arenas you may be able to get by with only some of these skills or none of them (if you can hire good enough people to do it for you), generally speaking you must have at least some skills in financial management, human resources, information management, sales, marketing, etc.

If I were to sum it all up, I’d say a good leader has to have a purpose that is larger than she is and the balanced personality and skills to put that purpose into action.


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Nonprofit-Specific

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