What does it mean “to be a leader”?

To give a one sentence answer to this question is impossible. There are probably written more books about leadership than about love. However, if I have to try to summarize what I see as leadership – and for me leadership equals good leadership, this will be my “one line”, or rather key words;

Someone with the inherent ability to understand, synthesize and act upon situational complexity and solve problems through collaboration, compelling communication and behavior, someone humble but fearless, able to instill authority and respect without disrespecting others, and with skills, experience, integrity and a great portion of wisdom.

That is a long sentence, difficult to absorb! Let me make it a bit more straightforwardly?

It is four main points in what I said:


  1. able to listen, understand and collaborate
  2. humble but fearless
  3. able to instill authority and respect without disrespecting others
  4. with skills, experience, integrity and a great portion of wisdom

There will be a lot more to add that I probably would not disagree with, but in my opinion these characteristics are what as a minimum must be in place to have the “design” of a leader.

Now, let’s look at what is there and what is not there.

Inherent ability to understand means a natural talent to interpret reality correct based on empathy for the situation and for people involved.

To synthesize means to bring the most important elements of a complex matter together in a conceptual summary easy for others to see.

To act and solve problems through collaboration, convincing communication and actions means to be able to bring people to act together as a team based on decisions they accept and support and by being willing, through your own behavior, to suffer the same consequences as is expected from others, and to be part of the team effort yourself.

To solve problems is by the way very much what leadership is about. If you don’t like constant problem solving, you shouldn’t seek a leadership position. You have many functions in an organization to take care of technical and administrative tasks. These functions are handled by employees trained and skilled for specific purposes. What is left for leadership to do is to make sure problems are solved. Problems are permanent in any kind of organization, as they are in all aspects of life.

Note that I say humble before fearless, and not the other way around. A leader needs to be fearless, or at least when necessary be able to not show fear, but humbleness is maybe the most important characteristics of leadership in my personal opinion. Humble leaders will be remembered as the greatest. Fearless leaders will only be remembered for their great fearlessness or even brutality.

Able to instill authority and respect are together because if you only want to instill authority, this can easily be done through threats, brutality and fear. But with respect without disrespecting others it means you have to recognize and accept that other people will have different and conflicting opinions and that you are able and willing to listen and even learn from these conflicting opinions. And to bring conflicting interests together and making even better solutions.  

Skills and experience mean that you have gained practical knowledge and learned “craftmanship”, not only theoretical knowledge.

Integrity means honesty and soundness of moral character and not being willing to violate personal principles and values.

Wisdom is mostly based upon life itself, and the insights that comes from being able to connect what we have heard and learned with what we have had of our own failures and successes in life.

By the way, all wise people I have met and observed are always joyous people with a good sense of humor and an ability to laugh of life. This is in my opinion another very important value; to be joyful.   

Let me describe “what is not there” in my description – or at least some of what is not there.

I have said nothing about techniques and theories. Because anyone can learn that from anyone.

I have said nothing about talent, because talent is the personality that are able to absorb and contain all the characteristics that makes a leader. There are a lot of people with a big ego and a strong drive to be in charge of others, but honestly, I do not want to have these kinds of people as my leaders.

I have said nothing about confidence, which is so “in” in our time. Confidence can actually be very dangerous, especially if it is only based on theory and education, and if it is not limited by competence and humbleness. Confidence without competence equals arrogance. There has been almost a trend the last 30 year or so that even at elementary school level children’s confidence are boosted – at least in the Western world. This is very dangerous if it is not also followed up by learning humbleness, respect for others, collaboration and teamwork. Over-confident children – and adults – are in my opinion unbearable.

I have said nothing about personality style, for example being fast, systematical, entrepreneurial, social. We all have different individual styles, and this will of course influence how we lead, but with the characteristics I have given above anyone could be a good leader no matter what style.

If your personal style matches the specific situation you are in as a leader, the more successful your leadership is likely to be, however. For example, if the company you lead is in a crisis and need immediate, tough corrective actions and problem solving, you are more likely to succeed if your style is focused, effective and pragmatic rather than if you are charismatic, social and a teambuilder. 

Leadership has been an important subject since the industrial revolution beginning around 1760 and the increased business complexity it created with larger organizations. Before that, leadership was for thousands of years left to kings, generals and ecclesiastical.

I believe however that we are exaggerating our emphasize on leadership and that “everyone” should be a leader.

Parents want to know how they can bring up their children to become leaders. By doing this they may focus on the wrong elements of what leadership is because they only see the elements that are visible and popular at any given time. What is visible and popular? Well, generally speaking it is toughness, cleverness, ability to command and manipulate others.

This is not the elements of leadership but rather the characteristics of a very dangerous leader.

Actually, it is very simple, just ask yourself, what kind of leaders would you have as your leaders?

Would you for example have as your leader someone that don’t understand or like “people problems”, but rather only rely on “hard facts” and statistical information?

Or someone that talks about team building but really don’t understand or care what it is?

I have met a lot of leaders that believe that they can make a team and lead it to success, but the same leaders would never dream of being a part of a team themselves if it was driven by someone else. These people are not team players, no matter what they say, and they will never in my opinion really understand what it means to “lead a team”, which mean they will be poor at leading people, which in the end is what leadership is about.  

Leadership require patience, very hard work, not to put yourself first, to listen rather than talking all the time plus teamwork and collaboration with others.

Are leaders born as leaders or is leadership something that needs to be learned?

There is a dominant belief that some are born leaders.

Parents always want to believe that our own children are absolutely unique, but I don’t believe there is any such thing as born leaders.

Among animals there might be, but the difference between us and animals is that we have created a much more complex reality for ourselves.

It is not enough for humans to have a strong ego like e.g. an “alfa male” or to be physical stronger than the others.

If you say that what I have described above is very difficult to find in one and the same person I will both agree and disagree. I have personally met a lot of leaders that composed all or most of what I have described. They were not saints; they were just good people – and most people are. And above all, because we are not perfect anyone of us, we need each other. We need to collaborate, and we need collaborative leadership.

Circumstances, coincidences, upbringing, guidance, training and the sum of your personality as described above is what makes leaders.   

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Global strategic management consultant, founder chairman of the University of Fredericton and Sandermoen School of Business. A Norwegian by birth and staying in Switzerland for over a decade, he authored many management books and is a regular columnist in several international magazines.

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