What becomes a great leader most?

I keep returning to this meme because it just sounds right. I was reading one of Mark Cuban’s Tweets (or whatever they are now called) last week where he was riffing on qualities he looked for in a great leader. Now, he was talking politics, and I want to remove that context for the moment, because what he is saying has larger implications.

Leadership is something that I am somewhat familiar with: I have run numerous publications over the years, usually as editor-in-chief where I had to hire the staff. Back in 2012, I was selected to a special leadership training program with a cohort of 60 others, drawn from various organizations here in St. Louis. My wife was selected for an earlier cohort and encouraged me to apply, and it was a fantastic experience. I got to meet business, government, and non-profit leaders as they spoke to our class. We tackled some pretty thorny issues and had some amazingly frank discussions, and formed many  enduring friendships.

Cuban’s list gets to the core of what becomes a great leader most. His thesis is that a great leader is someone who he would hire, and understand and appreciate their values. He breaks this down into several categories, with the overriding aspect whether they are lifelong learners, especially in a world that is constantly changing. Being one of these learners, I never really thought that was necessary condition, but as I think about the best leaders that I have known and worked for over the years, I would agree with him on this and the other items on his list:

  • Will the subordinates who worked most closely to this leader come back to work for them in subsequent jobs?

I am proud to say that I have hired several people multiple times over our careers. This is an easy one to spot: the same crew follows a great leader from posting to posting. I wrote about the original crew that I worked with at PC Week back in the mid-1980s when Sam Whitmore, one of the editors, said it was like being in the Beatles. I once wrote about this group of five guys who have started numerous companies over a 20 year span as an extreme example of this.

  • Does this leader take credit or give credit to others?

I have had some really lousy bosses who were credit stealers. And some great bosses who wouldn’t hesitate to give credit where it was due. Another easy one to spot.

  • How a leader treats people who can do nothing for them.

One of the aspects of leadership that I have enjoyed most is developing someone’s skills and having them leave my operation and go on to do great things. I can think of several people that I hired that have blossomed and had amazing careers, and I like to think that I had something to do with that. But that is more a condition of being a great mentor, rather than buying your way into what Tom Wolfe once called “the favor bank.” Wolfe used the concept as a way to build relationships of trust, but it can also go awry if abused.

  • How does a leader handle the criticism that comes with the job?

If you have a thin skin, you aren’t going to last long in any leadership position. You have to roll with the punches.

  • Does a leader hire their staff for loyalty or ability?

This is harder to spot, because sometimes you don’t realize the loyalty connection until it is too late. With one job, I got fired because one of my subordinates was more loyal to my boss than to me. With another job, I eventually quit because this loyalty connection was undermining my ability to lead my team.

  • Does a leader create stress or reduce stress for the people around them?

Another easy one to spot. I wrote about this situation a couple of years ago when I suggested it was time to fire your jerk boss. At one publication where I wasn’t in charge, our leader was really great at creating chaos and pitting one staffer against another, just to see who would triumph. There was always a fire drill, and the fires were always five alarm ones too. It was like everyone had PTSD, it was so stressful. Conversely, a great leader will do the necessary blocking and running interference from their bosses, so the staff is insulated and get the actual work done. This goes hand-in-hand with how a leader handles criticism.

Thanks Mark for such words of wisdom.

6 thoughts on “What becomes a great leader most?

  1. David, thank you for passing along your insightful experience. What comes to mind is the value of a servant leader. A Servant leader will do the blocking and tackling as necessary, at the same time build an environment that supports the development and financial requirements of the business. Removing all of the hygiene related issues in the organization Sets the stage for a team or organizational members to focus on their role & responsibility. If the right people are hired then the organization meets their goals or OKRs. Mark’s words of wisdom will come to fruition in this context.

  2. Great article, David. My husband Bob is a consultant who specializes in organizational behavior, utilizing the teachings of Chris Argyris (Model II, ladder of inference). I learned a lot from Bob about giving helpful negative feedback without making the recipient defensive, and even more importantly, how to listen to negative feedback and examine ones own assumptions, on a regular basis. Those are also key qualities of an effective leader, you agree?

  3. I really liked your article ‘Time to Fire Your Jerk Boss’. Reading what you say suggests to me that at least Boss A was probably a narcissist. I didn’t really know what these were until I made the mistake of getting to work for one. I and my colleagues had never encountered this particular type before, because our organisation had every employee applicant complete a rather clever personality assessment, which weeded them out before they could even get in the door. In this case, the Boss got in via a side door when he bought our startup company! When I looked up the traits of a narcissist it was an almost perfect match – it explained their every action. Unfortunately, the only answer with such people is to get out of their sphere of influence, i.e. leave, which we all did, fortunately before it made us ill. I just pity people who have mistakenly married one. That must be really terrible. Once again, I suspect the answer is to leave. The sad thing about them is that they often come over as clever, charming and kind to people outside their control. This of course includes their bosses, who are usually oblivious to the chaos and misery that is happening beneath them. I wonder how many of your other readers have a similar tale to tell? If all organisations had good personality profiling for job applicants (at every level) it could make a big difference to a lot of people’s lives, along with bigger profits for their companies I would suggest. Perhaps the narcissists could go live on an island together?

  4. This also reminds me of an event that happened to me back in about 1984, when I was a young engineering consultant at a well-known technology consultancy. It made quite a deep impression on me. We used the company’s proprietary personality test for all professional job applicants. They did the test first, and it was marked during the interview by a trained assessor, so you could feed back a summary of the results to the candidate before they departed. This was part of their ‘open’ approach to recruiting, which was unusual and well respected at the time.

    I was new to interviewing and was asked to manage the interview of a potential recruit. He was an experienced engineer whose CV suggested would be a very good fit with the expansion we were seeking to make. He interviewed very well – extremely bright, and appeared easy to get on with. Whilst he was doing the company’s other test (an intelligence/aptitude one) I came out of the interview to check with the assessor how he had done in the personality one. The results were extreme. He was way high on some of the key alarm bells for us – I think they were to do with control and management style, and low on others that we valued to do with team working and empathy.

    I went back and (carefully) fed back some of the key points it the candidate. As soon as I did this his demeanour changed. He started by denying that these results were his and then went on in an aggressive way to assert that this wasn’t him at all and that the test must be faulty. His voice raised and I saw a very different person come through his guard. In a few seconds I realised that this guy would have been a disaster if we recruited him. He would have caused chaos in our multi-disciplinary innovation teams and would not have fitted our culture at all. After he calmed down I waved him off from the interview with some relief.

    I realised that the test had temporarily equipped me with some of the skills of an experienced interviewer – feeding back the test results had provoked him to show his true colours, which he had previously skilfully hidden from my inexperienced interview technique. A more accomplished interviewer might have found questions to put him on the spot and provoke a similar reveal. But on this occasion, I had to thank the personality test for allowing me, and the company, to dodge a bullet.

    • Thanks Rob for those memories. You bring up an important point about psych testing — you need trained test givers to interpret the results. This site lists a bunch of the tests that you can try yourself online: Open Psychometrics

  5. I enjoyed the article, too. However, one thing seems to be missing, and that is the trait or attribute that a leader must have the ability to vision and embrace broad, perhaps innovative, concepts and objectives and communicate those effectively to co-workers and others in his/her sphere of influence. Though they are important indicators, none of Cuban’s points really speak to that.

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