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What makes a good leader?

By Sarah Beckett on October, 15 2015
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Sarah Beckett

The answer to that question is different today than it was a hundred years ago—or even twenty. The world changes, and the qualities of those who lead it successfully must change, too.

At the turn of the century, leaders were often described in terms of charisma, magnetism, and power. They chose a path based on their own vision for the future, and compelled others to follow that path. They commanded, controlled, coerced, and rewarded those around them to drive the organization towards its goal.

Today, leaders are more likely to be described as facilitators, mediators, and conduits—people whose value lies as much in their ability to support the talents of others as in their own inherent talents. They solicit, respect and appreciate multiple perspectives rather than imposing their own. They empower and inspire others to do what they do—and do it better than they ever imagined they could.

Consider the examples below. One describes a traditional, autocratic leadership style in which one individual drives an agenda based on his or her own vision. The other outlines a receptive, servant leadership style that listens to and empowers others.



When new CEO Ron Johnson decided to turn traditional, budget-conscious retailer JC Penney into a sleek, upscale shopping experience, he did so on the strength of his own vision, without consulting staff or customers. By the time he was fired 17 months later, he had cost the organization revenues of more than $4 billion, dragged stock prices down by 50 percent, and alienated the store’s dwindling but loyal shoppers. While the company has since course-corrected to some extent, the imprint of this catastrophic failure of leadership will be carried for years to come.



Compare Johnson’s leadership results with those of Cheryl Bachelder, who was similarly tasked with rescuing a once-popular but rapidly failing enterprise. Using an approach she terms “servant leadership,” she prioritized listening to and serving the franchisees of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc. rather than dictating to them. By empathizing, understanding, and responding to their needs, she managed to turn the organization around swiftly, mend franchise relationships, strengthen the brand, and increase share prices fourfold.


Workers, customers, and investors alike have increasingly come to expect more from the organization—more opportunities for input, more control, more transparency, and more return on their investment of time, talent, or money. As a result, the profile of a leader capable of delivering excellence has changed dramatically. Leaders who see themselves as independent creators rather than skilled conductors of a group endeavor are increasingly out of step.

In HRSG’s new ebook, How to develop transformational leaders using competencies, we’ll take a closer look at the transformational leadership approach that has quickly overtaken the traditional model and provide insight into how organizations can identify and nurture those individuals who have the capacity to inspire those around them and act as a catalyst for innovation and creativity.

Download the free ebook now!