Who is a perfect leader?

“If I had eight hours to cut a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening my axe.”

– Abraham Lincoln

“If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.”

– Ecclesiastes 10:10 (NIV)

Exemplary leadership is not a fait accompli. A legacy-driven leader never really arrives at a point where he boasts that he knows and has all it takes to be the ultimate leader. The average person who finds himself in a position of leadership is so consumed with DOING leadership (function) that he has little time left for BEING a leader (disposition). Great leadership is more about becoming or being than doing. This is because true leadership is developed through a process that sees the leader evolve even when he has no platform of formalized position to exercise the role. By the time the platform comes, he is ready for it because he developed his leadership capacity before the position. Take the position away, he will still be a leader. To a true leader, the monk is not defined by the hood!

In the last twenty-five years, I have been privileged to interact with leaders; some as mentors and others as protégés. Talking about positional leadership and dispositional leadership, I have seen both sides of the coin. However, two things distinguish the sterling leader. The first is his ability to embrace challenges and take on responsibilities with little or no prompting. Second is his rabid propensity for learning! The latter is my focus today. Effective leaders are constantly on a personal development and reengineering binge that enables them to grow, evolve and ultimately perform better than others.

The perfect leader is an oxymoron. He doesn’t exist. Great leaders are simply learning leaders. What are the traits of learning leaders that make them effective and proof-producing?

A learning leader takes informed decisions and informed risks. He never hastens into a decision without first getting adequate information about the decision and its attendant consequences. He can think farther than others because he knows better. Armed with superior information, he can dare to soar where others fear to tread.

One critical area where true leaders constantly work on themselves is their attitude. This is because a positive attitude is so fundamental to sustainable leadership effectiveness. When life hands them a lemon, they have learnt to add a little sugar and make lemonade.

It has been said that those who don’t learn from their mistakes are likely to repeat them. Effective leaders therefore engage their experiences, good or bad, from a learning perspective. To them, turning points become learning points. Where others interpret unpleasant experiences negatively, a learning leader asks what lessons can be learnt from those experiences. When they lose out in a venture, they don’t moan about the money but reflect on the lessons learnt from the experience. They simply see the money and time invested as tuition fees! A few weeks ago, a protégé came to see me. In the course of our discussion, I learnt that he had been sacked by his employers. There was no natural explanation for the sack. This guy is brilliant and a passionate go-getter. He felt cheated and sad. I simply asked him if the experience had taught him anything. He had been too angry to think about that. By the time he left, he had come to an “Aha!” moment that saw him literally grinning from ear to ear at the thought of uncharted territory of opportunities available to him.

As he works on his attitude, the leader also works on his skills. According to the scripture quoted above, skill will bring success. Anyone who desires to be and remain on the cutting edge in his field must constantly hone and update his skills. Gilt-edge expertise has a way of distinguishing those who have it from their contemporaries. The pursuit of excellence also makes the leader go after knowledge. We live in a knowledge economy. Information is becoming obsolete and upgraded almost daily. Great leaders know that what was held as canon yesterday may become antiquated today. So they spare no expense to acquire updated knowledge.

A young man who heard about the legendary wisdom of the Greek philosopher Socrates decided to go in search of the sage to learn wisdom. On getting to the sage, he expressed his intention. The sage listened to him without saying a word. When he was done, the sage motioned him to follow and they both exited the house and headed for the seaside. The sage, holding his hand, took the young man deeper into the waters, defying the waves. When they got to a point he considered deep enough, the sage grabbed the head of the young man, dipped it into the water and held it down for a few moments. Just before the young man became short of breath, the sage brought him out and asked, “Young man, what did you say you wanted?”

“Wisdom, old man, I want wisdom” said the young seeker.

Before the words were out of his mouth, the sage repeated the process and held him under the water for a longer period until he was almost gasping for breath. Then he asked him the same question.

“I already told you I want wisdom, wise master, that’s all”

Socrates dipped the rookie’s head in water again and held him there until he was breathless and was almost choking. Then he brought him up and asked, “What do you really want?”

“Air old man” came the reply between gasps, “I want air!”

The sage looked intently into his eyes and said, “If you seek wisdom as desperately as you sought air a few moments ago, life will definitely give it to you”

Great leaders are students of their environment. They are very sensitive to events in the environment they live in, especially the linkages between such events and the world at large. This is what makes leaders effective beyond geographical or racial limitations. To have universal relevance, they constantly benchmark themselves with the best in their field of desired outcome, for improvement and not for competition.

The legitimacy of leadership is anchored on the leader’s capacity to earn the trust of others to lead them to an outcome that they desire but cannot attain on their own or feel that he is more capable of leading them to. It’s about people being able to trust him with their emotions, time, energy and resources because they believe in his capacity to channel them towards positive, beneficial outcomes.

Consequently, true leaders constantly work on their people skills. To them, emotional intelligence is of greater value than academic credentials. Leadership is about leading the people who manage systems. Its priority must therefore rank the people above the system. Leaders with excellent people skills are capable of inspiring people to aspire to be and give their best at all times.

The payoff in this is that leaders who develop themselves are eager to develop others. Without much deliberate effort, they end up building a learning organization where more leaders are raised and leadership effectiveness is multiplied!


Remember, the sky is not your limit, God is!


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