Only one characteristic defines a leader.  Only one.

egyptian-goose-parent-with-young-ones-2-1347954-1279x905Academics often list characteristics of what they consider a good leader.

I may agree with their opinions about good leaders, but limiting the definition of leader to what I consider a good leader instills subjectivity before we have objectively determined what constitutes being a leader.

Masses of people sometimes follow what most of us would consider bad, even terrible, leaders.  And people very often do not follow someone that even those not following would describe as good.

Why do people chose to follow anyone, good or bad?

First we need to define follow.  We follow someone when we emulate them.  What about leaders do we emulate?  What we emulate is their values. 

“Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”  John Kennedy

People rallied around that value.

Pick anyone in history who was clearly a leader, good or bad, and you will find that the characteristic people emulated of that person, and what that leader is known for, is their value system.

During WWII millions of people responded to and emulated the values Winston Churchill espoused.  At that same time, millions of people were also responding to and emulating the values espoused by Adolph Hitler.  Both were leaders; both were not good ones; but both were leaders because millions emulated them.

President Kennedy, President Regan, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, General Patton, Pat Summit, Vince Lombardi, Steve Jobs.  People emulated them because they were committed to and espoused a set of values.  Not the same set of values, but their own set of values.

Jim Jones, Saddam Hussein, Mao Ze-Dung, Joseph Stalin, Osama bin Laden.  They were also emulated by large numbers of people because they were committed to and espoused a set of values.  Lousy values, in my opinion, but values to which they were committed and they espoused others should be as well.

Interpersonal skills do not translate to leading.  Many regarded as great leaders were known for having terrible interpersonal skills.  Many very effective organizers and managers are valuable and respected in their organizations, but they are not generally emulated by others.  The most intelligent people in the world are rarely regarded as leaders.

From observations, I can eliminate authority as synonymous with leadership.  Just because people do what they are told does not mean they are emulating the person giving the orders–and when you look close, people are often choosing which orders they are obeying.  Being popular is not being a  leader.

Espousing commitment to a set of values is the only trait that causes significant numbers of people to emulate or follow someone else.

But why would people choose to emulate someone else’s values, especially when the values are bad even on the surface?

Answer:  Values define purpose, and human beings need and often crave purpose. 

We belittle the philosophical question “Why am I here?”  But we belittle it because not having an answer makes us uncomfortable.  We need a reason, a purpose, for our lives, for our daily actions.

It is the curse of self-awareness.  We need a purpose to take us beyond simple survival.

People can be so hungry for purpose in their lives, that they respond to a bad set of values if they see someone deriving purpose and meaning from those values.

There are other factors in whether people follow someone.  We are not all just sheep ready to follow the crowd wherever it goes. Not everyone will follow any leader, and the level of commitment of followers will vary.  Personality and life experience play roles in how a particular person will respond.  Some followers may only be following the crowd and not the values.  Some people have already defined their purpose as dissenting and criticizing, so they won’t buy-in.  Some people are already committed to an opposing set of values.

Timing sometimes matters. In times of uncertainty, people become even more anxious for a direction and purpose.  Winston Churchill was not widely viewed as a leader before World War II, and was not widely viewed as a leader after.  But the values he espoused were what people needed during the war and made him a powerful leader not only in England, but throughout the allied nations.  Rudi Giuliani after the September 11 attacks is another example of how timing can play a role in how people react to the values a leader’s espouses.

Charisma makes it easier to communicate values.  But charisma will not keep followers for very long if a commitment to values is not there. The same is true of attractive physical appearance, authority, or public visibility.  Any of those are an advantage if added to an expressed commitment to a set of values.  But there is a huge difference between liking someone or obeying authority and following a leader.

I will often note that organizations are only extensions of human beings. Organizations also need a set of values to give them purpose.  Without a set of values to follow, organizations can flounder just as individuals can.  That includes governments, corporations, societies, associations, teams and families.

Just a personal commitment to a set of values is not enough.  Espousing that others need to follow the values is critical to leading.

There are those who can espouse values to others with very little verbiage.  I remember when I was playing high school football, and a leader on the team clearly communicated to me with just a look that I was not living up to his values.  In college, a close friend’s girlfriend was the captain of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team.  So I had the opportunity to witness Pat Summit’s nonverbal communication of her values many times.

But simply leading by example is over rated, and often only an excuse for not leading.  To lead you have to communicate that not only are you committed to the values, but others should be as well.  Steve Jobs communicated to employees what Apple’s phones should deliver, and also communicated to us what we should expect from our phones.  Lee Iacocca did the same regarding cars when he turned Chrysler around.  (Iacocca convinced hundreds of thousands that K cars represented America’s values.  The millennials reading this who research K car will be amazed that anyone would have bought that.  But we did.)

For a corporation to successfully exist over time, it’s values, it’s purpose, need to be focused on the reason every organization exists, to serve the needs of people. If a corporation exists only to serve itself, it shouldn’t exist.  Society has no need for it. 

A person or organization cannot lead over time if the values are self-serving, because the values being espoused are that everyone should be self-serving.  That does not mean that a person or organization cannot use power to stay in control for what seems a long period of time, but power is not the same as leading.   

Profit is often communicated internally as the purpose of corporations. It should not be.  Profit is necessary to the health of a corporation, but it should be part of the strategy for achieving a greater purpose.  When profit is the only purpose of a corporation, the corporation’s life is likely to be as short as it’s purpose is shortsighted.

Competition will be the topic of another chapter.  But I will note here that winning is also a poor ultimate purpose.

“When the reason for fighting is lost in the attempt to win a war, winning is no longer possible.” (author unknown)  The same is true in sports and other games.  Competition and striving to win serve necessary roles in life.  But it is sad when the love for playing the game is lost in fanaticism over winning.

Rules define the game.  If you win by cheating, you did not win at the game you were supposed to be playing.  In one respect, cheating is an admission you were not confident you could win.

If there was not a greater purpose to competition than just winning, soon nobody would play. Nobody should play if winning is the only reason to play.

Values and morals overlap.  But they are not the same.  I sense many of those in positions where they could and should be leaders tell themselves it is not their responsibility to espouse values to others.  In some cases I have sensed those in positions where they should lead were afraid values might get in the way of some opportunity in the future.  Which indicates they really didn’t have those values.

If you pay any attention to current events, you should know better than to assume anyone in an organization, especially high ranking officials, already understand even basic values of the organization.  The evidence otherwise is overwhelming.  And believing your employees are fundamentally different from everyone else in the world is simply incompetent.  Your employees need to be informed about the organization’s values just like all human beings do.

Not everyone should be a leader.  Some things cannot be accomplished by leading, but only by going against the crowd.  But if you are in a position in a family, team, association, corporation, society or government where you should be a leader, lead.

To the extent communication of values is lacking in an organization, the organization lacks purpose and direction, the organization lacks leadership.