Oswald Letter

You can’t lead if others aren’t willing to follow

Businessman addressing collegues around tableby Dan Oswald

What makes a great leader? That question has spurned endless debate and discussion for centuries. In business, we strive to identify those with strong leadership skills and put them in positions where they can lead others.

I was a having a conversation about leadership with a business colleague the other day. At one point, he said to me, “In order to be a leader, you must have willing followers.” A simple statement to be sure, but one that really stuck with me. It got me thinking about what sets truly great leaders apart from everyone else.

If you do much reading on the subject, you’ll find that it’s not intellectual abilities or technical skills that determine leadership success. Are they important? Sure. But the key attribute cited time and time again is emotional intelligence. It’s defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

More than 20 years ago, psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote a book titled Emotional Intelligence that went on to sell more than five million copies and spend a year and a half on the New York Times bestseller list. Through his research, Goleman identified five components of emotional intelligence at work:

  1. Self-awareness. The ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives as well as their effect on others. I’ve added the emphasis here because I believe the last part of that description is key. Understanding your own moods, emotions, and drives is easy, but knowing how they affect others is the clincher. Too many people put into a leadership position are clueless when it comes to how they affect those around them. Sure, they know what’s behind their drive, but they have absolutely no idea how any of it affects those they work with.
  2. Self-regulation. The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods; the propensity to suspend judgment—to think before acting. Too many times, so-called leaders believe they have permission to behave any way they choose. They’re in charge and answer to no one. This mindset is so wrong. Being in a position of authority doesn’t make you a leader. As I was told the other day, to be a leader, you need to have willing followers. The belief that when you’re in charge you don’t need to control your disruptive impulses or moods is the downfall of many who believe they are leaders.
  3. Motivation. A passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status; a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence. People get excited about following someone who is passionate about what she does. Passion is contagious, and when a leader demonstrates true excitement about the job at hand, others tend to rally around her. The energy of the group builds as they line up behind a leader who is optimistic and can inspire the same in others.
  4. Empathy. The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people; skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions. I’ve heard managers say, “I treat everyone the same.” That’s a mistake and something that separates managers from leaders. Leaders understand that every person is an individual with their own emotional makeup as well as their own hopes and dreams. To truly connect with others, a manager must understand each person he works with as an individual and treat them accordingly. If he can do that, he can become a leader.
  5. Social skill. Proficiency in managing relationships and building networks; an ability to find common ground and build rapport. What great leaders understand is that they can’t accomplish what they want without the help of others. They know they can’t order others to buy into their vision and follow them. Great leaders understand they need the help of others to succeed, and they go to great lengths to build relationships with others who share their goals and dreams.

Managers want to talk about the authority they’ve been given. They believe their success and that of the team relies on their intellect and expertise. Managers think that an occasional well-timed speech will motivate those around them. And managers believe others will follow them because of their position.

Leaders talk about the responsibility they have to others. Leaders understand that their success—and that of the team—relies on the trust and chemistry that is developed among the group. Leaders know that true passion for a shared goal will motivate everyone involved. And leaders know that they can lead only if others are willing to follow.