What Makes a Leader?

What Makes a LeaderLeadership is "the action of leading a group of people or an organization—or the ability to do this," according to the Oxford Dictionary. While this is the dictionary definition of leadership, there are many more interpretations of what leadership is and what makes someone a leader.

As John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, once said, "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more and become more, you are a leader." A common misconception is that "manager" and "leader" are interchangeable terms, especially in business—but a manager and a leader are not one in the same. A manager can be a leader but a leader is not always the "boss" of others. So let's be clear on the difference between the two before we get into more specifics on the qualities of a business leader. Below are a few distinctions between managers and leaders:

  • Managers administer. Leaders innovate.
  • Managers maintain. Leaders develop.
  • Managers focus on systems and structure. Leaders focus on people.
  • Managers take credit. Leaders take responsibility.
  • Managers achieve targets. Leaders achieve vision.

"Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision and relentlessly drive it to completion," said Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric Co. A good leader will exhibit certain key qualities that are most often sought after by organizations. Those qualities come out in each individual's personality and can be told through more than their resume; they are qualities that made the person who she/he is. Here are some questions we recommend our clients consider when evaluating an individual for their leadership ability:

IQ, EQ, self-awareness, empathy

  • Does the candidate ask for feedback?
  • Is there evidence of a strong desire to contribute to society?
  • Is the candidate aware of his or her role in particular activities and impact on other people?
  • Can the candidate explain what changed as a result of his or her involvement in something?

Strategic thinking, vision, creative thinking

  • Does this person have the ability to guide or direct an organization or team?
  • Can this person take charge, step up to a challenge and complete the task at hand regardless of role?
  • Does this candidate have a vision that he/she can inspire others to follow?
  • Can they visualize their personal trajectory?

Energy, motivation, drive

  • What are this person's long-term goals?
  • Does he/she have a "can do", optimistic attitude?
  • Are his/her goals motivated by money or are they more tangible?

Ability and desire to lead, willingness to take responsibility, ability to deliver results

  • Can the candidate demonstrate how she/he delivered results from a position of leadership whether by organizing, mobilizing or inspiring others?
  • What experience does the candidate have in a leadership role?

Self-confidence, authenticity, strength of purpose

  • Has the candidate demonstrated courage of conviction, persistence and determination in pursuit of his or her goals?
  • Does he/she participate in extra-curricular activities and how committed has they been to those pursuits?
  • Does the candidate have job-relevant knowledge?

Ask these questions when you are considering someone for a leadership role. If you are looking at someone internal with whom you have worked for a while, then you may already be able to answer these questions and have a sense of the person well before the interview. If this is a new person to your organization, approach the interview with a plan to learn as much as you can about them outside of what is just on the resume. Being a leader is about more than your experience; a leader needs to inspire, innovate and enhance an organization.

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Melinda WallmanMelinda Wallman leads the EMEA Partner Practice Group of Major, Lindsey & Africa. She specializes in senior level search on behalf of law firms, financial institutions and multinational companies in London and internationally. Melinda has placed lawyers into most AmLaw 100 and UK 20 firms as well as many global investment funds.



Bianca ThomondBianca Adams-Thomond is based in London and leads the EMEA In-House Search Practice of Major, Lindsey & Africa. She has combined her wealth of experience and market knowledge to lead and grow the London office's activities throughout the UK, Europe and the Middle East.


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