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Blog: What Separates a Good Leader From a Great Leader?

She wasn’t exactly a woman one would identify as a leader.  She was in her 30’s, her front teeth were missing, her clothes were worn, she stood a little over 5 feet tall, she was uneducated and it was rumored she had abandoned her husband in the middle of the night.  She took jobs mostly cooking and cleaning.  Although she had a strong work ethic, she would disappear in the spring or fall only to return completely broke with no one knowing where she had been.  

Does this woman fit your description of a great leader?  Would you respect a woman like this if you saw her on the street or if she came to your office for a job?   The answer was “yes” for the hundreds of slaves who followed her to freedom out of the South.  These people recognized and respected her for her great leadership.  This woman’s name was Harriet Tubman. 

“I had reasoned this out in my mind:  there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death.  If I could not have one, I would have the other, for no man should take me alive.  I should fight for my liberty as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me” – Harriet Tubman

Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet Tubman guided more than 300 people to their freedom.  She made 19 trips in all and never lost a single person under her care.  “I never ran my train off the track,” she once said, “and I never lost a passenger.”  History declares that Harriet Tubman was a great leader.  

So what makes a great leader? Is it a person’s upbringing, education, connections, drive for success, IQ or status in society?  Although these things can be beneficial, they are not the key separators that take a leader from good to great.  There are many qualities that make a good leader, but there are a few qualities that separate a good leader from a great leader.

Through our experiences and years of working with leaders we have identified five key characteristics that can help good leaders become great leaders.  This is not based upon the latest research or surveys.  They are simply our opinions based upon our experience. The five key characteristics have to do with the leaders':

1.      Character 

2.      Determination 

3.      Humility

4.      Ability to give their power away

5.      Clear vision and inspiring others to follow the vision 

Let’s break these 5 differentiators down:

1.      Character - Ask leadership experts what it takes to be a great leader and you will get a variety of answers… all of them good answers – no doubt.  But no matter how many positive attributes a leader has they cannot lead for long if they do not have character.  Character is:

a.      your reputation, your legacy, the qualities that define you such as honesty, courage and integrity 

b.      what you are - “Some men succeed by what they know, some by what they do, and a few by what they are” -  Elbert Hubbard

c.       not the talent - “Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent.  Most talents are to some extent, a gift.  Good character by contrast, is not given to us we have to build it piece by piece – by thought, choice, courage and determination”  - John Luther  

d.      earned through consistency and results – it creates the right to lead 

2.      Determination - it is defined as “firmness of purpose; resoluteness.  Great leaders show determination by:

a.      choosing to step up when other leaders give up and when they themselves are out of energy, ideas and everything and everybody seems to be against them – “A leader will never be more or less than their soldier’s evaluation of them.  From most of your troops you can expect courage to match your courage, guts to match your guts, endurance to match your endurance motivation to match your motivation, spirit to match your spirit, desire for achievement to match your desire for achievement.  They won’t mind the heat if you sweat with them and they won’t mind the cold if you shiver with them” – unknown

b.      being persistent and strong-minded in achieving success

c.       having the “backbone” to stand alone if necessary 

3.      Humility - “In reality, there is, perhaps, not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.  Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility” - Benjamin Franklin.  Humility requires great leaders to: 

a.      resist pride and arrogance.  In Jim Collins Book –“How the Mighty Fall” – being hubris was listed as the number one reason for failure.  

b.      do the small the stuff - “Show me a man who cannot bother to do little things, and I will show you a man who cannot be trusted to do big things” – Lawrence D. Bell

c.       recognize their need of others -  “Humble leaders know they need others” – Dec. 2014 blog post by Dan Rockwell

d.      acknowledge their imperfections.

e.      admit when they are wrong and then change course

Also, consider these 7 qualities - 7 Powerful Qualities of Humble Leaders (summarized by Michelle Braden):

1.      Honor and recognize people for their strengths, not yours.

2.      Success depends on identifying, appreciating, developing and implementing the use of talent in others.

3.      Know yourself through constant self-reflection – self-awareness.

4.      Have an accurate awareness of how others perceive you.

5.      Appreciate/encourage people share their insights and provide feedback – even when it is painful feedback. 

6.      Expect people to be their best. 

7.      Expect excellence in yourself as well as others and cultivate a culture as well as environments that nurture and protect excellence. 

4.      Ability to give their power away

Power to a leader can be many things such as:  authority, connections, relationships, processes, ways of doing things, data, research, holding information, ideas, lessons learned, influence and title. Great leaders give their power away through:

a)      developing others

b)      nurturing others

c)      expanding others

d)      empowering others

e)      allowing your ceiling to be someone else’s floor

f)       not being intimidated or threatened by others

g)      sharing all that you know 


5.      Clear vision and inspiring others to follow the vision - “A leader has the vision and conviction that a dream can be achieved.  He or she inspires the power and energy to get it done “– Ralf Lauren and “Where there is no vision the people will die” – Hebrew Proverb. Great visionary leaders will: 

a)      be accountable and hold others accountable for the vision

b)      take steps to inspire and lead with vision - “Developing the Leader within You” - by John Maxwell  (edited by Michelle Braden)

6 Steps leaders should take to inspire others and lead with vision:

1.      Look within you 

a.      you cannot borrow vision and passion from anyone else 

b.      it must come from within you

2.      Look behind you –

a.      What have you learned?  

b.      Your vision is based upon your own experiences.  

c.       What does your past tell you about your future?

3.      Look around you –

a.      How have you developed the people with you currently and from your past? 

b.      If no one is following you or growing under your leadership you are not leading.

4.      Look ahead of you – 

a.      Can you see and lead the path to the future?  

b.      Are others committed and connected to the path of the future?

c.       Leaders  must see everything from the vantage point of the mountaintop – this is why it is called “vision”

5.      Look above you – 

a.      What does God expect of you?  

b.      Is your vision bigger than you are?  

c.       No vision is worth of your life unless it fulfills your destiny and the purpose for which you were designed.  

6.      Look beside you – 

a.      What resources are around you:

1. people – relationships,

2. talents, 

3. finances, 

4. experience, 

5. expertise 

6. openness, 

7. boldness, 

8. eagerness 

 Now it is your turn…. What are your thoughts on the 5 key separators we have identified that differentiate a good leader from a great leader?  What would you add to or take away from this list to fit your definition of great leadership?

MSBCoach is committed to partnering with leaders and teams to identify their True North.  One's true north includes living into your values, identifying what it means to you to be your authentic self, and practicing emotional intelligence.  Leadership, executive, and team coaching are effective ways to help leaders and their teams put these principles into practice.  We also offer engaging workshops in being an authentic leader, emotional intelligence, identifying your values, and many others.  You can check out our coaching processes and our list of workshops here.


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