What constitutes a great leader?

A leader is a driver, meaning that leaders must be good decision makers and must be capable of choosing a destination.   When judged in hindsight, the destination must be meaningful and productive.  Just like a driver of a car, a great driver will act upon the passenger-spoken words, “We need to take the next exit.”  A bad driver will disregard all advice.   As drivers, we may know where we want to go, but it is our passengers who have the best view of the road.  It is our passengers who are in the best position to navigate.  Good drivers take us to our destination.  Great drivers rely on great navigators to help them get us to our destination in the best possible way.

Heeding the advice of “passengers” is vitally important to the effectiveness of a great leader.

Let’s consider the fail-forward (trust) and fail-stop (mistrust) approach to governance.  The term “fail” refers to the failure of a tactical decision/action to comply with a strategic goal.  The term “forward” means that the short-term tactical action may proceed if it means that it will “keep the lights on”.   The term “stop” means that in the interest of meeting a strategic goal, a tactical action is forbidden and the company suffers consequences as a result of inaction, “lights out”.  Fail-forward requires trust because the time and effort taken to assess an urgent tactical action may jeopardize the effectiveness of that action and may therefore jeopardize the health of the company.   Fittingly, fail-stop reflects mistrust because the reflexive blocking of a tactical action for the sake of improved alignment with a strategic goal does not take into account upward feedback and therefore cannot allow for the trust of tactical decision makers.

A great leader fails-forward, meaning that there is a healthy bi-directional trust relationship both up and down the hierarchical chain of responsibility.   A great leader empowers tactical decision makers with the ability to navigate.  A great leader recognizes that the acceptance and accommodation of non-ideal elements is often crucial to accelerating the journey to our destination (success) – in the same way that a driver might take a detour to avoid a road closure rather than waiting for the road to re-open in the vain of not diverting from his/her predetermined ideal route.

We are all leaders, navigators, and followers at different times.  When leading, if our decisions are unchanged when compared with and without our navigators, then perhaps it is time to rethink whether or not we are great leaders, good leaders, or shamefully bad leaders.