Why Do Leaders Become Leaders?

The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote, titled “Leadership Observations of a Management Consultant.”  I will be releasing more excerpts over time.


What Motivates Someone to Become a Leader?

There are as many reasons for wanting a leadership position as there are people in the workforce.  These reasons typically fall into one of two general categories: the desire to serve and the desire for self-esteem.  Sadly, it has been my experience that most people in or seeking to be in a leadership position are more concerned about self-esteem (the perquisites, trappings, and power of leadership) than they are about serving others.

Around two thousand years ago, a leader, who has had perhaps the greatest impact on mankind that the world has ever known – more than Plato, Aristotle, Moses, Buddha, or any political leader – was asked who was to be the greatest among his followers.  He replied that it would be the one who served others the most.  At another gathering of his “staff,” he washed their feet and told them that if he, their acknowledged leader, were to wash their feet, then they were to follow his example and wash each other’s feet.

This individual set forth for the world and for generations that followed one of the true examples of leadership.  He did not pick up a sword and lead armies into battle and he did not facilitate great financial transactions – in fact, he once destroyed commerce being conducted at a temple.  Instead, he went around the countryside practicing what he preached and showing others how to perform the same works.  He embodied a set of principles and beliefs, he exercised those principles and beliefs, and he taught others to conduct their lives according to those principles and beliefs.  He spent his life in service to others, and yet is still acknowledged as the greatest leader that ever trod the globe.

It is hard to see the outward benefits of having a leadership job title and not desire to have those benefits for one’s self.  It is also hard not to get caught up in the trappings of leadership once given that job title, even if one originally sought the title to accomplish great deeds.  A client of mine once remarked, “You move into leadership because you want to really help other people; but by the time you reach a position where you can help those people the most, and after you have done what you had to do to reach that position, you are either no longer motivated by a desire to help people or you can’t remember what you wanted to do for those people in the first place.”

Before anyone sets himself or herself on a leadership career track, a healthy examination of their motives should be performed.  If someone seeks leadership to feed their own ego, they will never be an effective leader, regardless of their other qualifications, because their motives are flawed.  If someone seeks leadership to help others, or has leadership thrust upon them because of the leadership qualifications they exhibit, they stand a much greater chance of success as an effective leader.

There are no guarantees about being a successful and effective leader, and it is possible that someone may not receive recognition for their successful and effective leadership in their own lifetime.  A true leader understands this and accepts it with grace and dignity – knowing that recognition and guarantees have nothing to do with what they are seeking from being in a leadership position.

The Role of an Effective Leader:

In my role as a Management Consultant, I have had the opportunity to observe hundreds of people in leadership positions.  From these observations, I have been able to distill some of the characteristics of successful organizations and the role that the leader played in helping these organizations be successful.

Create Communities.

Strength comes from diversity, not sameness.  This does not specifically mean ethnic diversity, but rather diversity in background, experience, and thought.  How is an organization served by being populated with people who are all the same?  How can an original thought be born or survive in that environment?

Too many leaders hire people who are either just like themselves or who pose no threat to the leader’s position.  Truly effective leaders surround themselves with people who are different and often smarter than they are.  Effective leaders should hire people who can do things that the leader cannot do.  This assigns an immediate value to the individual and reduces the second-guessing that occurs when a leader knows how to do a subordinate’s job and has trouble not micromanaging anyone else doing that job.

In thinking about the value of hiring people who are different, consider, as an example, Damascus Steel.  Damascus Steel sword and knife blades are made by taking several wires, each made of different metals, weaving them together, and heating/hammering them until you have one single piece of metal as the result.  These blades are not only some of the must beautiful blades ever made, but are among the strongest blades made, even though the individual metals used in the process by themselves would produce blades of much poorer quality and resiliency.

Organizations work the same way.  The output produced by a group of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and ideas, is far superior to the output produced by an individual or a group of individuals who all look at things in exactly the same way.

There are a number of ways to access and leverage the talent of a diverse group of people, but one of the strongest ways I have seen and used is to create “communities.”  The idea of a community is to give each person in the organization a sense of identity that is common for everyone.  This identity is used as a way for everyone to sense that they belong to something larger than themselves.  This identity must never be used in an “us vs. them” manner because that only serves to create internal competition, which is the destroyer of organizational effectiveness in all cases.  The communities being described here focus on collaboration and how the community as a whole can best serve its members and others who are not in the community.

A true leader builds communities from organizations and invites each individual to become part of it.  The culture within these communities is inclusive, rather than exclusive, and balances the needs of the individual with the needs of the business in a way that leaves all parties feeling that they are being taken care of.  Work is structured with the widest practical participation emphasized so that more diverse solutions are developed.

I had an opportunity to work with a leader who had a true gift for building communities.  People loved working for her so much that they followed her every time she took a new job.  Several of her current employees have been with her for years, even though she has changed companies multiple times since they first started working together.  This kind of loyalty is the evidence of the leader’s success in building a community in which people want to work.

This leader also embodied one of the most important qualities of a true leader: humility.  She understood that her job was to create an environment in which her people would work that was free from distractions (political or otherwise), so her people could accomplish their tasks.  I personally observed the results that her people produced, and can attest that it was her ability to build a strong sense of community and her humility in recognizing that her job was to enable others to work more effectively that led to accomplishments her organizations achieved.

Never Stop Teaching, and Never Stop Learning.

An effective leader needs to be a teacher because it is a leader’s job to make sure that everyone in their organization understands their roles and responsibilities as well as the cultural norms of the organization.  A leader establishes these norms and embodies these norms, but must also teach them to ensure that everyone understands and accepts these norms.

It has been suggested, though, that once you stop learning, you stop adding value.  A leader must therefore be a student and must be constantly learning to be a more effective leader.  This is not just about keeping up with new leadership theories.  It is about understanding your business, understanding your customers, understanding your shareholders, understanding your people, and understanding yourself.

Teaching and learning are continuous activities for which a true leader must make time.  A leader must also allow their staff the time to teach and learn as well.  It must become the standard way of operating to ensure that the organization stays current with how it needs to add value to others.

Have a Vision.

How can one lead if they do not know where they are going?  While others may disagree, I believe that vision includes both the destination and the journey.  Anyone can describe a wonderful destination.  It is a true leader who also knows how to get there.  A leader must also know how to help others get there as well.

A leader must also know when it is time to abandon a previous vision and establish another one.  Business situations change at lightning speed, and another sign of a true leader is to be able to recognize that the current path will no longer achieve the goals of the organization or that the current goals of the organization may no longer be desirable, and develop a new vision to either respond to or capitalize on changing business and economic conditions.


It sounds obvious, but it is amazing how many leaders forget this simple yet most profound responsibility.  Of the leaders I have worked with, the ones that needed the most help were those who had forgotten to lead, forgotten how to lead, or did not feel they had enough time in the day to lead.

Distractions are the constant with which everyone in business must contend, especially in the corporate culture of today where the pressure is to “do more with less.”  There are no ends to the distractions that leaders must handle on a daily basis.  But, then again, no one ever said leadership was easy.  No matter what is going on, there is nothing that excuses a leader from leading.  Leading is not something a leader does when it is convenient or when they get around to it.  It is the primary, exclusive, and overarching job of a leader.  It is the primary role every minute of every day, regardless of the weather, health conditions, job responsibilities, or workload.

A leader who does not take the time to lead sends a signal to the staff that they are not important enough to be led – that other things are more important.  A manager, who only administers an organization, may be able to get away with this.  A leader cannot.

It is important to remember that leadership is not just what a leader does, but how a leader does it.  Every task a leader performs is an opportunity to provide leadership to someone in the organization, if not the organization as a whole.  No opportunity to provide leadership should ever be missed by a leader.

One aspect of leadership that often gets overlooked is the understanding that no leader is ever alone.  Leaders often believe that they have a tremendous burden that they alone must carry.  Rubbish!  The most successful leaders I have ever worked with were the ones that actively engaged their staff, their peers, and even their superiors in solving problems and completing assignments.  If a leader has too much work to get done, and doing that work by themselves would keep them from providing leadership to the organization, then the best solution would be to engage select members of the organization in helping to get the work done and lead them through the process of completing the work by demonstrating/teaching them how to do it.

The people who work for a leader are very conscious of the leader’s workload.  When they see a leader with too much work to do, they attempt to minimize the burden they are placing on the leader by keeping issues to themselves.  As a result, the leader is not aware of issues that need to be addressed, communications begin to break down, and the community begins to fracture.  No leader can be effective if they have created, either intentionally or accidentally, an environment where they seem too busy or too overworked to be bothered by the needs of their staff.

The needs of the organization are the leader’s highest priority.  No matter how big the workload may be, a leader must respond to the needs of each individual in their organization as if it is the only thing the leader has to focus on.  No employee should ever be made to feel that they are inconveniencing their leader when they come to the leader for help or advice.  A leader cannot inspire loyalty if they are too busy to interact regularly with their employees.  No amount of rationalization about why there is not enough time to provide effective leadership can forgive a leader who does not lead.

If you are going to be a leader, then lead.  If you do not have the time, energy, or interest to provide the leadership needed by your organization, find something else to do.

About wbspeirjr

Award-winning author William Speir was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1962. His first published work is the 2015 "Muzzle-Loading Artillery for Reenactors." In addition to his artillery manual, William has published 19 novels, including a 9-book action-adventure series ("The Knights of the Saltire Series"), five historical novels ("King’s Ransom," "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," "Nicaea - The Rise of the Imperial Church," "Arthur, King," and "The Besieged Pharaoh"), one fantasy novel ("The Kingstone of Airmid"), one science fiction novel ("The Olympium of Bacchus 12"), one geo-political thriller ("The Trinity Gambit"), and a stand-alone action-adventure novel ("Shiko Unleashed"). William is a 5-time Royal Palm Literary Award winner: 2014 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "King’s Ransom," 2015 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," 2017 Second Place Published Historical Fiction for "Arthur, King," 2017 First Place Published Historical Fiction for "Nicaea - The Rise of the Imperial Church," and 2017 First Place Published Science Fiction for "The Olympium of Bacchus 12." William currently serves as the Chief Operating Officer of Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, LLC. For more information about William Speir, please visit his website at WilliamSpeir.com.
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