So what is leadership anyway? And more importantly how do you do it? Have you ever asked yourself these questions? They are questions I asked myself one day, after identifying in a consulting report for the umpteenth time, that many of the problems being encountered were a result of ineffective leadership.

Ineffective leadership seemed to be a finding in quite a few of our consulting reports. Yet we never really seemed to elaborate on what that really meant or give the client a way to “fix” it other than changing out the person in the leadership role. It reminded me of the 1964 quote by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart regarding pornography: “It’s hard to define but I know it when I see it.” This launched me on a journey to better define leadership and the characteristics, roles and responsibilities of an effective leader in a way that could be operationalized by all businesses – regardless of size.

I found a lot of definitions of leadership. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower defined leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it”. Leadership author Warren Bennis says, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Leadership expert John C. Maxwell defines leadership as influence. And one of my favorite quotes on leadership comes from a female leader, Pepsico CEO and Chairman, Indra Nooyi who concurs with my earlier assertion saying, “Leadership is hard to define and good leadership even harder. But if you can get people to follow you to the ends of the earth, you are a great leader.”

While inspiring and giving a high level overview of leadership, these definitions and the thousands of others I found really shed little or no light on how to be a great leader. After hours of research and hundreds of opportunities to experience and observe both great and not-so-great leaders – both men and women – I have distilled the role of leadership into a set of five distinct obligations:

  1. Develop self-awareness
  2. Leverage potential
  3. Set a strategic direction
  4. Achieve alignment
  5. Realize Results

Obligation 1: Develop Self Awareness: The first step in leading others is developing self-awareness – really knowing who you are, understanding your strengths (and non-strengths), knowing what is important to you, and having a clear understanding of where you want your business to go and why. You must understand yourself before you can truly understand others. I elaborated on this in an earlier article. You can read that article at:

The remainder of this article will focus on Obligation 2: Leverage potential. I will cover the additional three obligations in future articles.

Obligation 2: Leverage Potential: As a leader, it is your job to leverage potential – your potential and especially the potential of your staff. The core of leveraging potential is people development. As a leader, you fulfill your obligation of realizing results through the work of others. It is your job to ensure that each of your staff members contributes to their fullest capacity. In doing this, you start by helping them develop self-awareness. This provides both you and them with and understanding of their strengths, non-strengths, values and goals. Gaining a deep understanding of others provides you with information about how to best communicate, influence and motivate. It also helps you maximize each staff member’s strengths while helping them to neutralize non-strengths.

A second component of leveraging potential requires developing cohesive, high functioning teams. Cohesive teams lead to greater productivity and innovation by tapping into the skills and ideas of all members. They make better faster decisions and create a true competitive edge for your business. In developing cohesive teams it is critical that all team members have self-awareness. It is also important that they have an understanding of the strengths, non-strengths, values and goals of each of their fellow team members. In his best-selling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni describes five characteristics of cohesive teams. The first is trust and trust can only be developed when team members truly understand and appreciate themselves and each other. If you are interested in developing a high functioning team, I encourage you to read this book.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “…the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company today is employees doing a second job that no one has hired them to do: preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves.” From my experience one of the best ways to begin to address this issue is a focus on identifying strengths and areas for growth though assessments and profiles designed to highlight strengths and challenges in a non-threatening way. Here are two good books to help you get started: 8 Dimensions of Leadership by Sugerman, Scullard and Wilhelm and StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. Both of these books include access to online assessments. If you would like to take the free assessment that is a companion to 8 Dimensions of Leadership you can do so at

Regardless of whether or not you are currently in a formal leadership position, developing self-awareness is critical to success. Why not get started now?