What Makes a Great Leader?

I spend a LOT of time around technology and rightfully so as I do work for one of (if not the) largest companies in this category. However working for a technology company is not always about being involved in creating or using the latest and greatest product. There are quite a few intangibles that make one’s career fully matriculated and this is definitely seen when discussing upward mobility. Be it a leader of just a handful of people or becoming a part of your organizations senior leadership team (SLT), having these "soft skills" is essential.

It’s not easy being a leader although I’m sure we all tend to believe we would be. This holds true whether you’re leading a “Mom and Pop” type of business or a Fortune 500 company. Clearly there are more challenges with the latter yet certain characteristics do apply to both realms. Say what you want about your manager but generally speaking (there are some exceptions to every rule of course), your manager’s managing you for a reason.

A few days ago I attended a Webcast where I had the pleasure of hearing Microsoft’s Chief Executive Officer, Steve Ballmer speak and he was asked the exact question that titles this blog post. His answer was poignant and thoughtful as he articulated what he believed made a leader “great.” He mentioned a few reasons but emphasized that either a leader is great because of his manager’s perception of him or because that persons direct reports made him great. Hopefully both scenario’s would be valid but more to the point, if you look deeper you’ll see some underlying traits that span across Steve’s reasoning.

Having said that, let’s examine some of these qualities (in no particular order):

Choose great people

This sounds cliché but this statement’s true on so many levels. No great general is made without an army. Surrounding yourself by knowledgeable and experienced personnel is a top priority especially when dealing with technology. In an industry where things can change drastically you need to have people who can adapt and produce all the while relaying statuses back to you. Does it help that they’re nice to work with? Absolutely. However at the end of the day you’re only as good as the people supporting you and if your team is weak so shall you be.


Let’s face it; leaders who simply delegate task after task to their team members add no value. There’s a mutual respect between a leader and his team that when “push comes to shove” they’ll step up and help out as much as possible. Normally they themselves have a vested interest for [insert project name here] to be completed successfully so this should be a high priority for them as well. Not only that but reaffirming on a daily basis that the team is functioning cohesively is important such that delegation is not viewed as a negative factor but one that is required get the job done. Still, leaders should delegate where appropriate.

“Part of the solution or part of the problem”

A leader who in essence is a roadblock should most certainly not be leading. If the person who you turn to for guidance is creating more of an issue then assistance then not only is s/he contributing nothing but also is ineffective in problem management. This then leads to contention and failure. Of course those that are well versed in solving the most complex problems or even the mundane are easily visible and attract high value team members.

Frame the future

Unfortunately not everyone is a visionary and therefore setting a clear direction for those to follow is a necessity. Now I’m not saying that any of the choices made might not be fraught with danger (i.e. losing market share, slow/nil product adoption, etc.) however those decisions need to be made and should be substantiated by strong underpinnings which are then conveyed to one’s team. Depending upon what level of leadership we’re discussing (e.g. CxO vs. Team Lead) will determine the level of risk as well as the rewards. Never the less, setting goals, a well-defined agenda and having an uncanny ability to see the future are all traits a great leader should encompass.

These are but a few of the qualities that I believe constitutes a great leader. I’m reminded of a previous manager of mine who was anything but a micro-manager and we produced great things together. He set direction, goals to be accomplished and off I went. That style and leadership worked best for both of us but of course your mileage may vary (YMMV).

In the end though, you know when you’re following a great leader. That person inspires you to do your greatest work, achieve the almost unachievable and come back for more so that the journey doesn’t end but continues again and again.