How To Become a Great Leader

It takes more to be a leader than giving orders. The best leaders embody everything employees should aim to be; they are skillful and motivated to the point that it’s infectious. They speak with authority and garner respect. However, succeeding at the social aspect of leadership is useless if someone doesn’t know how to use his leverage. People expect leaders to know where an organization needs to go and how it can get there, but it takes a lot of thought and work for leaders to create a coherent vision.

Looking at History

The best examples of leaders can usually be found on the battlefield. There are exceptions; Gandhi’s revolution would never have succeeded if he wasn’t bold enough to try nonviolent resistance when he lacked the means to employ force. Likewise, MLK wouldn’t have become an iconic figured without a firm strategy in place to guide those who sought equality. The bloodier parts of history contain examples such as Zhuge Liang; he was a Chinese strategist who employed straw boats during the battle of the red cliffs in order to steal the enemy’s arrows. Everyone can learn something about how to lead by studying their examples, and it’s one reason why every businessman should pick up a copy of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” The modern age is civilized, but battlefields still exist in the form of projects and politics.


The specific strategies have to be thought up according to circumstance, but there are principles that should be second nature to strategic leaders. The ability to think critically is the foundation for everything else. Someone who accepts what he hears without question or research is bound to be led astray by false trends or dishonest employees. Critical thought is also crucial for the development of original ideas, and original ideas are the lifeblood of massively successful enterprises.

Leaders need to be capable of accurately predicting future developments, and that means they need to be especially well-informed about things that are happening in the present. They need to be forward-looking while placing value on their peripheral vision; innovations often arise from the most surprising places within an industry, and maintaining a large network of connections is key to ensuring that key trends are discovered while there’s time to capitalize on them.

Comfort in the Unknown

It’s human nature to dislike ambiguity, but good leaders need to be comfortable with making decisions when not everything is known. A leader who hesitates is seen as weak, and he loses the respect of those beneath him. That’s why he needs to hone his senses so that he knows how to weigh the risks and rewards of the actions his organization could take, and once he’s done that he needs to be able to accept the outcome regardless of what it is.

The most important trait of any leader is adaptability. It doesn’t matter if a strategy fails as long as it leads to improvements in the future. Leaders need to push beyond their personal comfort zones and absorb as much information as possible. They need to be able to synthesize their knowledge into workable theories that strike a chord on an emotional level with their employees. They need to know when to compromise and when to stand firm. It’s hard to achieve the right balance, but there are no limits to profit and progress once it has been accomplished.

Kelly Smith is an avid education blogger. If you enjoy filling leadership roles, you may want to look into strategic leadership programs such as those offered by New England College and University of Connecticut.

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  1. Napoleon once said he promoted lieutenants who were “lucky” in battle. His advisors questioned this notion of “luck” to which Napoleon replied that good leaders make their own luck. Set the conditions and prepare themselves to win whatever the opponent does. What appears to some as luck is a hard to define skill seen in leaders and Chess players and winners in all sports.
    Good leaders are not always successful. Having the natural or learned skills and giving it your all does not always translate into success. It is not unusual for both sides in a battle to have good leaders and yet one side wins decisively.
    Good leaders both reward and punish. Most good leaders find it difficult to punish and typically when they fail this will be the root cause. You must reward good behavior and punish bad behavior.
    The biggest threat to leadership in real life and survival situation is two or more alpha dogs/males/leaders. Your choice is to fight and eliminate your competition or they will do it to you. The worst mistake you can make is to believe that you have some other choice.
    One of the biggest challenges any leader faces is making everyone work harmoniously. Your problem is not the hard workers or willing followers it is the slackers and complainers. You will spend 80% of your time making sure they pull their weight and correcting their screwups. You need to identify them early and place more trusted people over them to help you keep them in line.
    A good leader and even a great leader may well have some special skill some field of knowledge that makes him standout in that field. Outside of that, say in a crisis or a SHTF situation he will be worse then useless and make many mistakes. In that kind of situation a good leader may simply be someone who has “traveled this road before” or the biggest strongest guy in the pack.
    Often times good leadership depends on everyone else being good followers. The best leader in the world will fail if his group all have their own idea of what to do and are unwilling to cede control to a leader who is not them.
    Most of what we perceive as good leadership is a result of success. But sometimes success is achieved in spite of the leadership style and not as a result of it. Choose your heros carefully.

  2. Experience successfully coping with new and novel situations coupled with the confidence such experience affords are key ingredients into the making of a leader.

  3. As a 20 year military person, advocate in ESAR ++ I totally agree with the above comments. Although there are a great many traits etc to being a good leader I feel the most important are knowing what needs to be done and organizing it to be done. This breeds confidence and thus trust in your leadership. But as one said above, if everyone wants to be alpha dog and not work for the team, it wouldn’t matter.

  4. One of the factors in leadership in the military is the military leaves little doubt about who is the leader. The lower level “alpha dogs” can work their way up but confrontation and challenging the appointed leader is a surefire way to civilian life. Usuallly the military leader is capable and often when they are not they get help or get removed. Most of us who did our 20 as enlisted knew at least 1 or 2 2nd lieutenants who needed help finding his place and leading men. Usually they either shaped up or shipped out. I have had the great pleasure to have worked for competent and fair officers and NCO’s and I have worked for more then a few bastards and dickheads. The system generally works and the less competent are removed from power. When your leader is incompetent the most important position is the number two guy, it is also the most difficult job you will ever have. I spent years as #2 and my main job was keeping my boss happy, keeping the troops from mutiny and still getting the job done. Sometimes the best leader is the #2 guy who not only has to lead but has to coerce the #1 to stay on track while making it all appear #1 is in charge. Usually my boss appreciated my efforts and keeping him out of trouble but I can remember one fool who was committed to doing the wrong thing and offending the wrong people. Thankfully he was removed and sent back to civilian life. Middle management can be the toughest job in the world and/or it can be one of the most satisfying. But you cannot officially be the alpha dog, more like a wolf and sheep’s clothing.

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