The Difference Between Good and Great Leadership

Goodness isn’t really celebrated. Only greatness is. Great leaders aren’t just better at being good leaders. They’re in a class apart. To watch them work can be awe inspiring. They energize those who work for them, uproot complacency and can shock a failing group or company into success with their personality alone.

Good leaders often protect the status quo. They keep a good thing going and improve piecemeal on the ideas around them. This is obviously a good strategy. A great deal of what we’ve managed to achieve has been through small innovations that have been stacked, one upon the other.

Not all of our advancements have come this way, however. There have been those moments in history where one man or woman shaped the very destiny of a country, a field, or the world itself. They did not just innovate piecemeal. They changed the very name of the game.

Good leaders show you what they can do

Great leaders make you realize what you can do. That’s a massive difference. A good leader impresses you with their capacity. A great leader, on the other hand, has the ability to impress you with who you are. They make you feel good about who you are and what you’re capable of.

That’s why great leaders often have a magnetic personality. After all, who doesn’t want to feel better about who they are?

The difference in productivity and capability is also immense. A good leader can help people become better at what they’re doing. A great leader can do so much more. They can take a team and make each individual brilliant at what they do, by inspiring them to learn, inspiring them to be better, inspiring them to be the best version of themselves that they can be.

Good leaders tell you what they’re capable of

Great leaders only show you. The difference between good and great leadership lies in this: a good leader will seem bigger than life, while a great leader – who is no doubt bigger than life – will also be able to be your friend, relate to you and be somebody you trust.

A great leader does not need to lord it over you. They are great leaders because they can assert their authority without needing to do so all the time. They can be your friends (while good leaders can’t) because they know exactly how to find that line between being your superior and being your ally. In fact, for them, they are often one and the same.

Good leaders tell you you’re great

Great leaders have you believing it. It’s a subtle difference, to be sure. How can you make somebody believe they’re great without telling them? Telling them certainly helps, but it isn’t enough. You need to show it to them as well.

These are the little actions. The respect you give people right out of the door, the fact that you’re willing to trust them with something important, the way you give them your undivided attention when they need it. In effect, it’s all about respecting people for who they are. It’s about making certain that you don’t just see them as a means to an end (e.g. raised productivity) but as an end in and of themselves.

Seeing a person as an "end in themselves" isn’t just one of Kant’s imperatives to a being a good and moral person; it is also the way to give a person true self-worth. Though you might be able to flatter us by telling us that we’re good workers, there is always something missing from a statement in that form.

We’d all like to believe that we’re more than just workers. We want to be fully fledged individuals, who are respected for our individuality, our personality and what we bring to the world beyond how well we work.

A great leader realizes that. They give the people below them the feeling that they’re full-fledged people and then take it a step further by saying that they can, in fact, be more than they are.

Good leaders build

This clues in to what I talked about in the beginning. Good leaders are able to enhance the status quo. At most, they might push the tiller in another direction and thereby turn the ship slightly. Great leaders don’t do that. They are disrupters. They invent new technologies, new ideas and realize there are utterly new ways to look at things.

This can make great leaders intimidating for others. After all, many people have a lot to lose when the status quo is endangered. That’s why great leaders attract a lot of attention – and it isn't always positive.

A good leader doesn’t necessarily do that. They don’t rock the boat and in that way can often go below the radar. For a great leader, going below the radar is difficult indeed. After all, going below the radar means doing things in the same way that everybody else does.

But that’s not what a great leader does. They change the rules and in the process step on people’s toes.

Good leaders are about not being noticed

That might be a strange idea, but it’s true. The best good leaders don’t really show up that much. They keep the ship straight and going forward. They make sure that everybody else can do their job properly.

Their words and their lessons are interesting, but they won’t win anybody any prizes.

That can’t really work for great leaders. Great leaders take a personal stake in what it going on. They don’t just direct the ship, they change the wind. Good leaders shape themselves to the reality around them. Great leaders shape reality to fit their will.

A good leader covers for what they can’t do

That’s important. If you have a weakness, you need to cover for it, right? Not necessarily. Of course, great leaders also have weaknesses. They’re not gods. The thing is, they take those weaknesses and they turn them into strength.

Okay, that sounds like something out of a fortune cookie. So what do I mean? I mean that they turn what they don’t know into opportunities for other people to shine. Look, I know something that this great person doesn’t know! Or they turn it into opportunities to learn something new themselves – and with that, I don’t just mean cover their weakness, but also about other facets of how to become a better human being. Perhaps they learn the skill required and in the process create a new understanding of how people learn and how they can make learning easier.

Good leaders know where they’re going to be tomorrow

Great leaders know where they’re going to be a year from now. To be a good leader you don’t need to have that much vision. They can simply motivate those that work for them and depend on them for the direction. They’re more like a catalyst, rather than somebody that points the way.

Great leaders, on the other hand, both are the catalyst and the rudder. They know where they’re going and they’re willing to put in the hard work to get there. They’re like Duracell bunnies with an inbuilt compass.

Alternatively, good leaders provide direction but no force

You know the kind of leader I’m talking about. They’ve got the vision, they idea, the motivation, but they don’t have the will to get anybody there. In this case, it’s once again up to everybody else to push the company forward. Other people need to work hard, while the leader points the way.

This isn’t possible for a great leader. They’re the ones who will be pulling each and every soldier out of the trenches and into the conflict, into the battle for their company’s success, even while the bullets whiz around their heads.

It’s an interesting point, actually. Good leaders can often embody a number of great leader characteristics without being great leaders. That’s because great leaders need to embody all of these traits. The difference between a good and a great leader is that a good leader has some of these traits, some of the time. A great leader has all of the traits all of the time.

Last words

So how do you become a great leader? Well, you start off by being good and then work on getting better. Some people maintain that leadership is something you can do or can’t. That’s nonsense. Leadership is not something inborn. It is something learned. That means that leadership is made, just like everybody else. That means they were good before they got great.

The difference between good and great leaders doesn’t lie in the way you’re born. Of course, it helps if you have some of the right character traits and a modicum of intelligence, but that is only the start. From there, it’s understanding that you’ve got to keep learning.

A lot of people learn a skill set up to a certain level and then simply stop learning. They plateau and  stay there for the rest of their lives. That’s what doesn’t happen with great leaders. They get that they are good, but they don’t rest on their laurels. They keep the hunger to get better. They find new things to learn, they get new teachers and they understand what they’re doing wrong.

That’s the real difference between being good and being great. And that’s why you can be a great leader too. Just don’t count on it being easy.

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