6 Qualities In a Leadership Role Model

A short while back, I wrote a post about disruption not being a career strategy. In the comments, Steve Jobs was mentioned and I commented that for every person who feels Jobs was an inspiration there’s another that will say how difficult he was to work with. A reader disagreed with me.

I would love to hear why a visionary CEO who led 60k+ employees and the rest of the planet into the next generation should not be looked upon as a role model.

I think we can all agree that Steve Jobs was a visionary. But being a visionary does not necessarily mean an individual is a great leader and role model. Today’s post isn’t to debate whether Jobs was a great leader or not. Even if we don’t agree with Jobs’ style, there could be moments when, depending upon the situation and the players involved, we all need to channel our jeans and black turtleneck to get something done.

leadership, servant leadership, role model, Steve Jobs, Robert Greenleaf, trading card

When I think of leadership role models, the first thing that comes to mind is servant leadership. The idea is, to be an effective leader, we adapt ourselves to the situation we are facing. We adjust our style so others understand instead of forcing others to adjust to us. In that way, we serve other first.

I was reminded of it recently in a piece written by Kareem Abdul-Jabar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, who wrote a review of the television show “Girls”. He got a lot of flack for writing the review. So much so that he explained why:

“We should all be intently listening to voices of the next generation, hearing what they have to say and, when they are struggling to say it, help them to articulate better.” He added, “That’s the advantage of growing older in this youth-centric society.”

Back in the 1970’s, Robert Greenleaf, director of management research at AT&T and founder of servant leadership, did the same thing. No, he didn’t watch “Girls” – he decided to read what the youth movement was reading at the time. The novel was “Journey to the East” by Hermann Hesse.

“Journey to the East” is about a group of people who are traveling to a new land.  Accompanying the group is their servant, Leo, who sings songs and takes care of their needs.  During the journey, Leo disappears from the group.  The group struggles to stay together and eventually disbands.  Several years later, it is discovered that Leo (the group’s servant) was really their leader. Inspired by Leo’s character, Greenleaf realizes that the key to leadership is to serve first.

Greenleaf talks about several qualities associated with servant leadership. Regardless of your philosophies about leadership, I’ve found over the years, these are ones that are consistently mentioned in conversations about leadership and role models.

  • Awareness – leaders must open the doors of perception and see what’s inside. This can be a disturbing thought.  But it’s to provide reality and see things in perspective.
  • Commitment to developing people – leaders help others become good leaders.
  • Empathy – leaders not only identify with others, but accept what others contribute. It requires a tolerance of imperfection.
  • Foresight – Being able to sense the unknowable and unforeseeable future gives leaders their “mojo”. As a leader, we must use good decision making skills and remember that a lack of decision making can be perceived as an ethical failure.
  • Listening – leaders naturally respond to a problem by listening first. True listening builds strength in others.
  • Persuasion – Whether it happens one person at a time or one action at a time, leaders are willing to use their talents and demand little from others. Even if it means standing aside and serving when asked.

Steve Jobs was a leader. Everyone has leadership ability. It’s how we use our leadership abilities that decides if we are a role model for others.

Image courtesy of HR Bartender


  1. says

    Enlightening article on a beautiful Sunday weather, thank you for sharing! It feels good to know we are doing fair job leading and grooming young talents in our company. Empathy though is the biggest challenge for me especially the tolerance of imperfections. The attitude and habits of the employees will always affect the operation and productivity of our organization. Being trained a decade ago with traditional ways like it’s either you have it or you don’t compared to now if you don’t have what it takes, we will take you there, it is really difficult to create a brand new belief even to yourself. It would take some time to master the empathy part.
    Shiela Gomez recently posted..Local 10 Voting Standings

  2. says

    There have been many visionary Leaders in History, some you would want as role models and some definitely not (i.e.Hitler). I personally think Steve Jobs serves as a good role model even though, from all accounts, he could be very difficult to work for. Most good Leaders do possess the traits listed in the article. An excellent Leader in my opinion is one who achieves results and makes everyone in the organization happy to help.

  3. says

    @Shiela – You’re absolutely right. Empathy can be a challenge. Each of us has a different frame of reference and brings unique experiences to the conversation. Thanks for sharing.

    @Betty – Thanks for the comment. I struggle sometimes with the idea of a role model that’s difficult to work with. But I can definitely see where we all have behaviors that another person might want to emulate.

  4. Melissa H. says

    This was a fantastic post to read! To be a leader and a role model…that should be the real goal shouldn’t it? As a very new “Boss” and “Leader” myself I am always wondering how my staff views me as a person. I think back to past experiences with ex employers who motivated me, angered me, scared me, etc and I try to use those few positive experiences on my own employees! I think an essential leadership trait would be to treat your employees how you would want to be treated. Teach them how you would like to be taught. Lead them how you would like to be lead. The “Golden Rule” of life and the work place…treat others how you would like to be treated. This post really reminded me of a book I just read by author Bill Sims Jr., “Green Beans and Ice Cream” (http://greenbeanleadership.com/). The author is well known for designing behavior-based recognition and reward programs for companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and Disney. This book clearly points out that the thing we need the most, is the thing we often receive the least—positive reinforcement and feedback from those around us. This is true on a leadership level, with family, friends and even with your spouse. The theme of positive reinforcement plays a main role in this book and it stresses that as a leader we must constantly be improving how individuals feel about themselves, the work they’re doing and the results they’re achieving. I hope you will give it a read… I recommend it to anyone in a leadership role, not just an employer… it’s great for teachers, parents, and even for your spouse :) Thanks so much!

  5. says

    There are leaders and great leaders. You are either born as one, or you can learn how to be one. I found that the ones that learn how to be a leader, trying to do a good job consciously, are the true great leaders. Because they also learn how to be humble, and treat their employees with respect and leniency. They don’t let power get to their heads, and they seldom turn to tyrants.
    So I think that another quality that should be added to the list is humility.

  6. says

    @Mihai – Your comment reminded me of the first line in “Good to Great” – the whole “good is the enemy of great” concept. Is it possible that good leadership keeps us from great leadership?