John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
His quote, along with tens of thousands of other great quotes on leadership, inspired me to find out more about what defines great leaders and to answer the age-old question of whether they are born or made. I have come to believe that the only innate elements of great leadership are passion and energy. Everything else can be taught.
Great leadership doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no 6-week course that will suddenly turn you into George Washington or Jack Welch. Great leadership is built brick by brick over many years with each decision and every mistake you make. Done correctly, great leadership stands on a rock solid foundation.
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Within that foundation are four cornerstones. These are the four words that best describe the type of leader you are today. They also represent the type of person and leader you aspire to become. Some cornerstone examples include: Integrity, Gratitude, Decency, Vision and Character. The words are the core of what you stand for as a person and a leader.
My Four Cornerstones
To give you a better sense of how to select your leadership cornerstones, here are the four I chose for myself over 30 years ago when I was a teenager. I had parents who were also great mentors and showed me the importance of having these stones in place during the formidable years of my life. My four cornerstones are:
- Character. The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. When you hear someone described as a “person of character,” you get a positive, leadership image.
- Credibility. The capability of being trusted. As a small-business owner, credibility is a critical element to success. You will lead your company through sometimes murky waters while dealing with larger companies who may hesitate in doing business with a small company whose leader doesn’t possess the utmost credibility. Remember these words: “I can’t do business with you if I can’t trust you.”
- Integrity. Having strong moral principles. This goes hand in hand with credibility and character. There are times in our business lives when we’ve been offered opportunities that were less than honest. The result may be a leg up on the competition or an easier path. In essence, it’s nothing more than a cornerstone test. We’ve all seen the disgraced leaders in newspapers and on television who failed the cornerstone test. Remember their faces, tears and shame. It’s all a result of a poorly built foundation.
- Vision. Seeing what others cannot see. I’ve always aspired to be a person who challenges himself to see what others cannot see. This cornerstone is critical in times of crisis when there is no clear path.
Filling in the Foundation
Once you’ve established your four cornerstones, it’s time to fill in the foundation. Select 15 to 20 more words that describe your personal and leadership skills (e.g., excellence, respect, humility and responsibility). Lay these words across your foundation, let them settle in and stay committed to them.
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Just as important as selecting the positive words that represent you as a person and leader are selecting the words you want to avoid, such as: dishonest, conceited, insincere and dictatorial. These words are red flags when they come up in discussion. You not only want to avoid them yourself, but you want to steer clear of other people who embody these words. They will quickly drag you down and keep you from achieving your objectives.
Testing Your Words
If you want to become a great leader, it’s imperative to gauge how others view you. This is not a popularity contest, but rather a litmus test to see if you are being true to the words you’ve chosen for yourself. What do others say when describing you as a leader? Do their words match your cornerstone words? What about your foundation words?
Ask your family, friends, colleagues and employees to select three to four words to describe you: a) as a person, and b) as a leader. Which were the most common words used to describe you? Were there any surprises? Are the differences big enough to make you change how you live and lead?
After you review your own cornerstones, look for part two of this series on leadership, on building your house and how to be a leader in all aspects of your life.
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