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What is leadership?  The qualities of great leaders.

Updated: December 15, 2011 11:31AM

What makes a great leader? In today's high-stakes business world, do we still believe that great leaders are born, not made? What defines great leadership now?

To answer these questions, author Gary Burnison went to the source, interviewing some of the world's top leaders. These conversations were later compiled in the book, No Fear of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal with Risk and Change.

In this interview, Burnison shares his insights about the traits of great leaders as well as the accompanying risks, challenges and rewards.

Monster: Most people mistakenly believe that great leaders are born -- but many of the people you spoke with developed and grew their leadership skills over time.

Burnison: Every leader we spoke to reported, from personal experience and from observation, that while some leadership abilities are innate, these skills are developed over time through experiences, increased responsibilities, and greater accountability.

Monster: What are some of the essential characteristics of a great leader that emerged in your interviews?

Burnison: Great leaders care about their teams. Like a good coach, the leader is focused on what the "players" know -- not what they know. This requires competence on the part of the leader, especially to empower others to stretch themselves and accomplish more that they thought possible. Leaders inspire and instill confidence.

They communicate continuously so that the actions of their teams are aligned with the mission, vision, and purpose of the organization. And, leaders create an environment in which it is safe to give feedback, whether it's a problem on the horizon or an opportunity that is just being realized.

Monster: Whose stories exemplified that most?

Burnison: Two stories stand out. The first is General Franklin "Buster" Hagenbeck, who recently retired as Superintendent of West Point. As a career military officer, he developed his leadership through a variety of experiences, including being battle-tested as he led ground troops during "Operation Anaconda" on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the months immediately following 9/11. Central to his leadership development over the years were lessons he learned from his mentor about competence and caring. As he put it, a leader must be competent. And, when soldiers know that the leader cares for them, they will literally put their lives on the line.

The second story is Eli Broad, who today is a billionaire philanthropist who supports the arts, medical research, education, and civic projects. Over the course of his impressive career, he founded two Fortune 500 companies: KB Home and SunAmerica. His observation was that, as an entrepreneur, his leadership developed over time. In fact, Broad talked about working hard at becoming a leader to earn the respect and loyalty of others. People saw him as a "winner"-- meaning he could take calculated risks and succeed far more than he failed -- so they wanted to be on his team. Leadership, after all, requires followership.

Monster: What recommendations do you have for readers who want to improve their leadership skills?

Burnison: Remember: listen, learn and then lead -- in that order. Most people do not listen enough. When the other person is speaking, we're busy thinking about the next thing that we want to say.

By focusing solely on the other person, we are communicating nonverbally that they matter, that what they say is very important. When you give the other person your fully attention (especially without electronic distractions) you are showing respect and fostering loyalty, which are big components of leadership.

The second step is learn. Good leaders are voracious readers and lifelong learners. Be inspired by history and biography. Learn how others faced challenges and made a difference. Then, after you listen and learn, you lead by creating alignment with purpose and passion to pursue it. The leadership journey is never done. Everyone can become a better leader. The joy is found along the way.

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