Copyright © 1989
by ASC Missions Group, ntc.

A title does not a leader make. Neither does being the one in charge. People don't line up behind just anyone. True leaders have certain things about them and their goals that inspire others to want to contribute in some way.

Ultimately, leaders are chosen by the people who commit to them.

Goals And Direction

A leader does more than set goals. Almost anyone can devise a goal. Goals proposed by people who are not leaders are usually passed over lightly by other people. "That's a nice idea," or, "Don't we wish!" is about all such goals get. Yet the leader of a group may not be the one who does the goal making. Sometimes the goal maker is not the leader type, but someone else who is the type adopts another person's goal and becomes the group's leader. This often happens, and it is only a problem if the goal maker is unwilling to concede the leader's share of the spotlight.

We are often told that another element of leadership, along with giving the group a goal, is direction. Seen by many as part of the goal, direction is actually the way and means of achieving the goal rather than the goal itself. It may encompass behavior and performance standards that surpass the minimum required for just getting to the goal. Direction can often be included in the goal statement: "We are going to take the lead in this market and we are going to do it honestly!" While this example does not encompass the entirety of the direction that will come from the leadership, it certainly goes beyond just stating the goal. Again, however, as with the goal, the leader may not be the one who defines the direction.

So, what does a leader do? What makes a person a leader?


A leader demonstrates. He demonstrates confidence, in himself and his worthiness to pursue the goal, and in the feasibility of the goal itself. More, as he begins to accumulate a team, he demonstrates confidence in the individuals who constitute it. People rally behind individuals and groups who show that they can get something done.

Trying to understand leadership by looking up the word in a dictionary can become a problem. The problem can be called circular definitions. Leadership is defined as the ability to lead, but that tells us nothing. The solution is to look up the root word, lead:

to show the way to, or direct the course of, by going before or along with; conduct; guide.
The italicized part is very important. Without it you can make the mistake of sitting back and handing out daydreams, ideas and instructions, and failing completely at being a leader. A leader must have that extra quality, demonstration. This is why the person or persons who develop the goals and direction for a group may not be its leadership. People who can't or don't demonstrate the "right stuff" need to put a leader out front and let him or her go for it. And they shouldn't fear the consequences. If the leader is in alignment with the game as defined, his success will be everyone's success. All the goal makers will need to do is confirm the alignment.

An individual who inspires by example will be supported even though his adherents may dislike some things about him. People don't expect each other to be perfect. The idea that they do is a myth of fairly recent origin, perpetrated in the popular press. The truth is, most people respect the quirks of others. Further, because they accept that no one is perfect, most people are not surprised when leaders and others who are "larger than life" turn out to be somewhat eccentric. Since most of the real criteria for leadership are reducible to confidence, quirks and eccentricities are only a problem if they destroy confidence.


This is not to say that people will tolerate offensive behavior. There is a difference between what one is and what one does, but what one does is what other people experience. Brusqueness may be seen as a characteristic of someone who is focused and busy, but rudeness will not. So a person who is brusque may well be forgiven, while one who behaves rudely won't.

Another category of unacceptable behavior is that which contradicts the goal and direction in some way. The contradiction doesn't have to be blatant or even directly connected to the goal or direction. It may be as subtle as the leader's behavior seeming to say that his true ethical standards are inadequate to the goal. Or, his actions may be seen as adversely representative of his adherents. A leader who does things that put his supporters in a bad light can expect most of them to fade away.

Perhaps this explains why people often follow despicable leaders. Though despicable, such leaders are consistent with the goal and direction, and do represent the group's desired public image. That image doesn't have to be what the rest of us would admire. An example is the goal of having the dominant inner-city gang with the controlling direction of doing whatever it takes. The leader of such a group will be an accomplished criminal who sets the standards of ruthlessness by his own example. Help him and he'll let you keep some of your take; cross him and he may execute you himself. A recent demonstration of this occurred in Panama, when General Noriega personally, publicly, and summarily executed the leader of a failed coup attempt.

Of course, the general population of Panama did not support Noriega much more than do the local shopkeepers in Los Angeles or New York support the gang leaders. But, confronted with violent deaths at the hands of those in the army who did support Noriega, they did no more to rid themselves of him than do those who are threatened by the ability of the metropolitan gangs to deliver crippling blows with near impunity.


Communication is essential to effective leadership. As discussed, the goals and direction must be made known to those who would adopt them. The leader can't expect other people to just know what the game is by watching. People need to hear it, or at least to read about it.

A common error in communication is playing fast and loose with metaphors. You can get away with not being the Great Communicator if you have a message that isn't too difficult to understand. People will give you the benefit of the doubt and ask questions and try to get what you mean. It is when they get a clear message that isn't quite right or that actually steers them in the wrong direction that the trouble begins.

Metaphor is the use of a figure of speech containing an implied comparison, where a term normally used to speak of one thing is applied to another. For example, we might see a storm as the weather expressing emotion, and thus invent metaphors-- a storm of protest, or a raging wind.

Metaphors can be quite involved, as when the dynamics of one type of group or activity are attributed to another. Positioning a company as a family is one example. Another is likening the doing of business to the prosecution of war.

The liability in these metaphors is that the metaphorical concept becomes the background of the primary subject in the thinking of those who use and hear them. Thus, in the company-as-family metaphor, people see themselves as siblings, parents and children, and mis-conduct themselves accordingly, to the degree that their own family experiences were dysfunctional, and to the extent that people tend not to restrain themselves and their rudeness as much with family as with "outsiders".

The business-as-war metaphor is equally as insidious. When people adopt this metaphor, through the use of the language of war in discussing business, they actually begin to conduct themselves in a militaristic fashion. They pull rank, they are in command, and they do battle. At the extreme, they commit espionage, sabotage, and treason, and generally try to destroy the enemy. And, lest we forget, in today's artificially "competitive" world, the competition can be one's coworkers and boss. When they operate in this fashion, neither of these metaphors contributes to an atmosphere of mutual respect. And there are many others.

To avoid subtly coloring the vision and thus accidentally misdirecting his people, the leader should pay close attention to the semantic implications of metaphors and avoid any that are questionable.

Trying to liven up your message by putting it into a more colorful context may actually give it an unwanted and counterproductive life of its own. The best policy is to allow each thing to stand on its own. Just speak your truth plainly, in its own context.

The Leadership Team

Under certain circumstances a "leader" can be a team. When the job is so big and the scope of its quest involves such tremendous numbers of people that it requires a division of the primary responsibilities among specialists, there may be no clear favorite among the leadership, but the effect of a demonstrated confidence in the goal and the capability of the team is achieved nonetheless.

The Burdens

It often seems to leaders that the only return on being a leader is additional responsibility. The more people being directed, the greater the scope of the game, the higher the stakes, the more the leader is called upon to be accountable for the ultimate success of the venture. To many, it isn't worth it, and they surrender the mantle early on.

The problem isn't the responsibility, however. It is the failure to properly delegate it along with the authority to follow through. The successful leader in a large organization spends most of his time approving proposals and reports and making appearances intended to reinforce the direction and sense of confidence of the group. His work appears to be accomplished effortlessly and he looks quite gratified by it all. He is seldom ill, and is always a source of inspiration to those who have adopted him.

The weak leader is unwilling to release the reins of power to others. There are several reasons for this. Maybe this leader is a poor judge of people. If so, he will be afraid that his assistants will perform poorly, and he won't give them a chance to prove him right. They always do, though, if only in his eyes. An uncertain leader micro-inspects that which he doubts, and under his constant scrutiny even minor flaws look fatal and reinforce his fears.

The weak leader may be technically ignorant in a crucial subject. If he doesn't have access to experts or people he can trust to perform well and keep him informed as well, the operation will suffer because of his uncertainty or ignorance. Similarly, a business owner who harbors ill will toward salespeople will be a problem for his own sales department.

An organization is always a reflection of its leader's thinking.

Delegation And Trust

The issue of responsibility is resolved by delegation, and the issues in delegation are judgement and trust. Trust is an issue because to be successful a leader must have and demonstrate confidence in his people. When he doesn't, he is sorely limited because he will be requiring himself to see to every important detail personally. Judgement is an issue because errors are costly if not fatal for the game. And these two can turn into a vicious circle: when a boss is a poor judge of people his trust in them is impaired because of his lack of confidence that he hired good people; when his subordinates seem to prove that he shouldn't have trusted them, he doubts his judgement even more.

Judgement can be demonstrated by a leader who is not himself making the actual choices. Assisted by competent advisors and strategists, he can have the best alternatives at his disposal merely by delegating the job of developing them. Therefore, good judgement across the board is not terribly important to a leader who is at least a good judge of people and who is willing to delegate and trust.

Trust is the problem that destroys most weak leaders. It is also the problem most resistive to correction. Whether it stems from one's own mistakes in delegation or from actual past betrayals, lack of trust is a personal problem. Even so, trust can be rehabilitated despite the emotion involved. This is precisely the sort of thing for which our Semantic Adjustment procedure was developed.


Even though a leader must delegate and trust, he must also not drift off into La-La-Land. He will have to keep his eye on things as well as keep his people's attention on the goal and direction. If he doesn't, things will begin to drift off course. The simple answer is to make inspections a matter of policy. The trick is to do them without any element of mistrust. That's the only way to remain objective in the matter.

Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

Sometimes, if you let your world-view shrink down to only what you read in the newspapers, it can seem as though there aren't any leaders left. That is simply untrue.

Leaders are to be found everywhere. They are mothers and fathers who inspire their children and friends with their admirable qualities, be they loving concern for others, honesty and intelligence, or just the ability to cooperate and have fun doing it.

Bosses who demonstrate competence and a sincere concern for the company's mission inspire employees to emulate them by becoming proficient and respected professionals.

Politicians and administrators who truly serve the public trust are revered and become examples of all that is to be admired. They are often the largest group among popular role models.

Almost anyone can be to some degree a leader to someone. The person who refuses to go along with an unethical activity inspires others to be more honest. The schoolteacher who shares real-life examples of the functions of his subject shows his students the way to the connections between theory and the elements of real life. The three-year-old girl who helps her little brother across the living room as he learns to walk provides an example for him to emulate later.


Leadership, then, is a combination of only a few attributes and skills. It is the ability to demonstrate confidence. It is the clear articulation of goals and direction. It is the willingness to accept the guidance of competent people and to allow others to get on with the show. And it is having and demonstrating enough judgement to ensure that one's own behavior is consistent with the requirements of the controlling direction and the goal.

When these things are in place, giving orders and getting compliance are incidental.

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