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The Leader Formula: The 4 things that make a good leader.

Each week we will be asking Dr. Covey to comment on common questions. This week we ask: what makes a great leader?

Q: What makes a great leader?

A: My definition of leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.

Q: You often say that leadership is a choice not a position. Can you elaborate on this?

A: Because of the definition I use for leadership, the ability to become such a leader is a choice that any person can make; any parent or grandparent, any teacher, any coach, any co-worker, and friend. When I speak throughout the world, I often ask audiences,

“How many of you had someone in your life that communicated your worth and potential so clearly that it profoundly influenced your life?”

Inevitably over half the people raise their hands. I walk around the room and ask them to share their experience with how it happened, who did it, the impact that it had upon them, and if they, too, are making the choice to do the same with other people. People often become very emotional when they talk about the parent, the coach, the teacher, the formal leader, the friend, the neighbor, or the relative who really became very close to them and communicated to them their worth and potential. This is always an inspiring experience.

Q: Is there a formula for becoming such a leader?

A: I believe there is a formula. They are what we call the four imperatives of leadership.

  1. The first is to inspire trust. You build relationships of trust through both your character and competence and you also extend trust to others. You show others that you believe in their capacity to live up to certain expectations, to deliver on promises, and to achieve clarity on key goals. You don’t inspire trust by micromanaging and second guessing every step people make.
  2. The second is to clarify purpose. Great leaders involve their people in the communication process to create the goals to be achieved. If people are involved in the process, they psychologically own it and you create a situation where people are on the same page about what is really important—mission, vision, values, and goals.
  3. The third is to align systems. This means that you don’t allow there to be conflict between what you say is important and what you measure. For instance, many times organizations claim that people are important but in fact the structures and systems, including accounting, make them an expense or cost center rather than an asset and the most significant resource.
  4. The fourth is the fruit of the other three—unleashed talent. When you inspire trust and share a common purpose with aligned systems, you empower people. Their talent is unleashed so that their capacity, their intelligence, their creativity, and their resourcefulness is utilized.

I would add that these are based upon principles that build upon each other rather than techniques or steps that have to be taken independent of each other. These aren’t “management tricks” but real principles that guide a true leaders character.

The world is vastly different today and ever-changing. If we can develop leaders who can withstand and embrace the changing times by deeply rooting themselves in these principles of great leadership, then we can develop great people, great teams and great results.

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29 Responses to “The Leader Formula: The 4 things that make a good leader.”

  1. blown away Says:

    Thank you for this post. When I first read it, I thought to myself, “Gee, I wish my bosses would read this. I don’t feel trusted, I don’t feel like we have a clear purpose and our systems are so out of whack it isn’t even funny.”

    Then I read it again…and saw what I missed the first time. “because of the definition I use for leadership, the ability to become such a leader is a choice that any person can make; any parent or grandparent, any teacher, any coach, any co-worker, and friend.”

    Wow, that hit me hard. As a father, husband and member of the community am I trying to follow these principles? Do I look at my kids and micromanage them? Do we have a clear purpose as a family? Do our “systems” align (and by this I mean, do I say that my family is the most important but act differently) ?

    I think this is going to have to be a week of close self reflection.
    Thank you for this post. Really.

  2. Gadfly Says:

    I wish more people could have access to Stephen covey’s philosophy.

    Not only american, but also any other people from different continent.

  3. Melody Campbell Says:

    I always knew being a “loser” instead of a Leader was much harder. Funny today I just posted the 16 Steps to Becoming a Complete Loser on my blog. I think I’ll blog about this tomorrow with a trackback to your blog post.

    Have a prosperous day!

    Melody Campbell

  4. David Fry Says:

    Step #4 is the result of leadership and not an actionable step. The question is how to become a leader, and step 4 is ‘the fruit of the other three’ — what life will be like when you are a leader. I think this could work better with three steps so as not to confuse our actions with their results.

    The other three tips are helpful, although a little on the lean side. Maybe you could flesh those out a little more in future posts? Thanks.

  5. James Chapman Says:

    I totally agree, these four imperatives are not management tricks, but the fundamental principles of great leaders who choose their own destiny and empower their people, who excel in all they do.

    Thank you for reinforcing my own personal beliefs.

  6. ed Smith Says:

    Any chance Bush someone could forward this on the Bush.

  7. Stephen R. Covey » Blog Archive » The Leader Formula: The 4 things that make a good leader. Says:

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  8. skyz Says:

    thank you - i am adding this to my blog with link - i have always been blessed with people in my life who are so willing to put themselves out for me and i have pondered on why - i realized that when people do/are their best for me or others they are happy because they have done/been their best and it certainly works for me - it is the ultimate win win situation - the ability to bring out the best in others is what a true leader can do -

  9. Phillip Says:

    To Mr. Fry.

    I would advise you to sit back and think about all four rather than rushing to judgment. The correct response would be to “flush it out” in your mind. For me it is as follows:

    1. Inspire Trust. When handing out an assignment go ahead and thank the person for taking care of it before it gets done. When it is done tell someone else about what excellent job that person did.

    2. Clarify Purpose. State and/or clarify your goals. map it out and make sure each person knows what they need to be doing and see number 1.

    3. Align Systems. To me this means look at your current environment and compare it to number 2. Find any conflicts and eliminate them.

    4. Unleashed Talent. This is both a process AND a result. What does it take to unleash talent? How about asking for ideas?

    My suggestions are definitely NOT the definitive answers. I am just saying flush it out in your mind as the truth can be a little different for each one of us.

    All in All a great post. Keep em coming please sir.

  10. David Fry Says:

    Thanks Phillip - I appreciate your response. I think that “Unleash Talent” could be a good step, with some clarification, but UnleashED Talent, doesn’t get the point across as well.

    You may notice that steps 1, 2, and 3 are each described by a verb (inspire, clarify, and align) and an object. These are clearly actionable steps, and the descriptions give suggestions on how to accomplish them. #4 is an adjective and a noun. The description of this step is in passive voice “Their talent is unleashed” which doesn’t answer the question “How?”.

    So I’ll take your advice - besides the three preceding steps, what does it take to unleash talent? Do you know if there is a more extensive version of this online or in any of Dr. Covey’s books? Thanks.

  11. skyz Says:

    i had a professor in music theory who had a doctorate in composition from eastman rochester school of music - this woman saw talent in me and took me on and convinced (revealed to) me that i was natural as a composer - you could have pushed me over with a feather - it had never crossed my mind - we had two years together before she died of cancer - she defintely was “someone in your life that communicated your worth and potential so clearly that it profoundly influenced your life?” - i am still amazed and i think i always will be - she left me with “you can continue on your own you have everything you need” - she more than influenced my life she transformed it -

  12. Stephen Covey Discusses Leadership « The Detached Consultant Says:

    […] Stephen Covey Discusses Leadership A lot of prospective MBA students ask me what my definition of leadership is.  I believe Stephen Covey covers it well in this article. […]

  13. Scott Says:

    Great post. I consider myself a leader — or did, when I was in college (I have recently graduated). It’s nice to know that through my roles I accomplished some of your goals but still others I see room for improvement.

    I have a little trouble with #4 — perhaps it should say “Unleash talent” rather than “Unleashed talent”? It would be great if all leaders had the ability, through their leadership, to inspire others to accomplish great things. Only the best leaders go a step farther and allow themselves to be removed from their role temporarily, in order to unleash talent they have worked so hard to foster in their team.

    It’s very refreshing to get a clearer definition of a leader as I was asked this EXACT question many times through my job interview process. In many organizations and jobs of which I was a part during school, the most detrimental quality I noticed in would-be leaders was their inability to inspire trust in the team (Quality #1 on your list). If all else fails (seemingly unclear purpose, unaligned systems, and failure to unleash talent), at the very least your team trusts you to help them reach the end goal.


  14. Dan Says:

    I remember reading Stephen Covey in a leadership class in high school. I always found his insights fascinating and really are quite the breath of fresh air that everyone is looking for to alleviate some of the older definitions of leadership and success. That being said, I feel that the best leaders are the ones who are comfortable in their own skin and are confident enough to wade through even the toughest of obstacles. Too many leaders these days seem to give up the ghost relatively early on in the process and delegate the responsibility to subordinates. Perhaps this is the direction society is going, maybe there is a decided lack of personal responsibility just to achieve a larger profit margin. However, this does not include all managers and leaders, but it does seem to becoming more of the norm. With Stephen’s concepts trickled to the managers and leaders of the world, we might actually be able to sustain ourselves for the years to come.

  15. Tyler Says:

    Im gonna send this link to my boss, thanks for the article

  16. John Spence Says:

    I have long been an admirer of Mr. Covey’s work. I read more than 120 business books a year and have since 1989 — and would put his “7 Habits” in my top 10 all-time best. It is that important.

    As I read this blog what really come to mind for me is the impact that a leader has on the people they lead. Regardless of title, position, or seniority we all have the opportunity to reach out and touch the people we work with - to lift them up and help them see their potential.

    Which brings to mind two important aspects of leadership.

    First - in order to be a great leader of others, you must first be a great leader of yourself. It is quite simple, if you want to be an effective, inspiring and trusted leader - you have to be a living example of your leadership philosophy.

    Number 2 - Nothing is Small. As a leader you live under a microscope. The folks you hope to lead watch everything you do. They hear everything you say. They are watching your every action to see if it is in integrity with what you say you believe.

    To me though this is exciting. It means that if you are serious about being the kind of person that people willingly follow - then the only way to get there to be a person worth following. What a super way to live your life in service to others — helping them grow and develop and live more full and rewarding lives.

    Thanks for a great post Stephen — it gave me some superb things to think about — John Spence

  17. Cvos SEO Says:

    It’s definitely easier to learn what makes a good manager/leader than to become one.

  18. Bigblackone Says:

    According to leadership literarture, there are over 180 definitions of leadership — and Covey’s defintion and expansion doesn’t seem to add much new. I thought it was interesting that these initial comments could be categorized as “amoral” (They could just as well apply to Hitler as they could to Jesus). Also, what about the role of reality in leadershp? I’d like to think that Covey believes leaders change reality.

  19. David Says:

    This is a good list but obviously breaking any important subject like leadership down into four factors grossly oversimplifies a complex subject. But, if you need to distill the complex subject into a readable blog that makes people stop and think, these 4 do seem to convey the complex issues in a clear, concise manner.

  20. James Says:

    Dr. Covey,

    I think you are forgetting the results-oriented nature of leadership.

    Leaders, first and foremost, have people that follow them. WHY people follow is open to a whole host of factors, not the least of which include intimidation, dependancy, fear and laziness. Some of the best leaders are also the biggest bullies.

    Second, leaders have to lead. That is, they have to be the ones finally choosing the direction and starting off toward some goal. I’m sure you’re aware at how often people will simply follow anyone who is prepared to step up and lead.

    Finally, a leader must win. One of the strongest influencers on whether people choose to follow is whether or not that leader is effective at achieving the group’s goals and “winning” whatever it is that they are leading their team to achieve. A “winning” leader can get away with a lot of bad actions and still have people striving their utmost to perform for them.
    Without winning leaders may be nice people, but ultimately, no one follows them and they cease to be leaders.

    The list you’ve enumerated above, seems to encourage people to become nice managers at the expense of becoming effective leaders.

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  28. Mike Golvach Says:

    Great post,

    I’ve read similar stuff (”How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls”, etc), but this was very concise and much easier to read.

    Good stuff :)

    , Mike

  29. Covey ‘ s Four Imperatives of Leadership | CEOWISE Says:

    […] Dr. Stephen R. Covey offers a  post on his blog on what makes a good leader. […]

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