What Makes a Good Leader?

There once was a welder who was very good at his job. He enjoyed welding, his work quality was high, he worked fast. He delivered results, and his bosses were happy.

Because Joe was good at welding, his bosses wanted to reward him for making them money. They figured if he was a good welder, then putting him in charge would make all the other welders good too. They promoted him, made him the shop foreman, gave him more money and more responsibility. This included some other junior welders to work under him.  Instead of doing what he enjoyed (welding), he found himself spending more and more of his time doing paperwork, sorting out problems with his staff, dealing with missed deadlines, anything but actually welding. Joe soon found that he wasn’t enjoying coming to work as much as he used to.  Some days he didn’t even want to go to work. He thought maybe he should quit and find another job. Quit welding altogether.

Joe wasn’t happy, his bosses weren’t happy, and the other welders started wondering when Joe became such a jerk. He wasn’t one of the guys anymore. He wasn’t good at being a shop foreman. He hated not being good at what he did. This made Joe grumpy and short with everybody. Morale in the shop fell dropped. Production and quality fell.

He was still trying to good job, because Joe was a decent guy. Or at least he tried. That’s part of what made him a good welder to begin with, and people had respected him for it. Now he felt all alone, like nobody had his back. He wasn’t doing anything he could be proud of anymore. What he didn’t have were the skills of a good manager of welders.

Being a manager & leader is a skill. Not everybody can be a leader. Not everybody wants to be a leader. But if you need to the skills can be learned. It can be practised. It’s measurable. Joe certainly knew when he was failing, and he didn’t like. His bosses knew when he was failing because turnover went up and productivity and quality went down.

Which brings us to the first characteristic of a successful leader: life-long learning. Striving to do better. Always learning, getting better, making measurable progress and improvement, reading, sharpening our saw.

This life-long learning behaviour has a couple of benefits: learning better ways of doing something more effectively makes us more productive, which means we can do more of it in the same time or something else with the time we have left over. It keeps our brains fresh – like a muscle we must use it or lose it. It allows us to analyze and consider alternatives and at little or no cost. It allows us to avoid others’ mistakes, and to learn from the best practices of others. Sometimes it may seem like we have to run hard to stay in the same place, but if you’re not learning and growing then you’re falling behind.

It’s like the Steven Covey story about sharpening your saw. If you can’t stop long enough to sharpen your saw because you’re too busy cutting down the tree, then you’re never going to cut down the tree because your saw is too dull. Meanwhile the next guy with the sharper saw is cutting down more trees.

Invest in yourself, because the people and projects you lead are worth it. Invest in yourself because you’re worth it. Make it a life-long habit.

7 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Leader?

  1. An oft repeated story.

    A crucial point, however, is that the lessons you draw are not specific to leaders, but apply to any qualified assignment. A good X engages in life-long learning, whatnot. (A minor point, reflected in my different phrasing, is that “good” and “successful” are not the same—and that successful leaders are often bad leaders, e.g. because they got were they are by sucking up.)


    1. Absolutely, nothing surprising here really. Becoming an expert in anything means focused and continuous improvement over a period of time. So what else makes a good leader rather than a good X, where X is any role. So there’s got to be more, right?


      1. I am a little uncertain whether you just formulated a thought as a question, or whether you are actually asking.

        Going with the latter: This is obviously a very big question, requiring long research and a book of its own. To just state what is at the top of my head, I would see humility, intelligence, and dedication as near certain (additional) common denominators, with a few others, e.g. mental strength and wisdom, as strong candidates.


  2. Sorry, it was a rhetorical question. I do that.

    Those are all good traits, characteristics, and attributes. I can’t really argue with any of them, but I don’t know how to teach, coach, mentor, or develop them. Which is why so much of the discussion around leadership is frustrating. No concrete actions we can test or measure to prove or disprove our theories.

    The “more” I was thinking of is also a measurable skill – the ability to develop and nurture life-long relationships. With relationships comes influence. With influence comes the ability to get work done through others.

    At least this will be my thesis when I write about this topic next.


  3. I keep going back to this and will use this example in a presentation that I have to give next week. I am hoping that its simple message will resonate with everyone.


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