Essence of a Leader

leaderWhen a company executive proclaims that he or his firm is a leader, I admit to being skeptical, and ask a simple question: “Who says?”

The truth is that people and companies that claim to be leaders are largely self-anointed. If the owners of a small, new or inexperienced company know that they can’t get away with claiming to be the leader, they claims to be a leader in their industry or undertaking.

In their exuberant quest for an imaginary top position, self-declared leaders diminish the word. They toss the ‘L-word’ around so lushly as to drain it of credibility. Upon examination, the claim usually has the substance of an ice cube on a hot griddle.

What’s the harm?

If everyone is leading, where are the followers?

Mostly, leadership claims amount to mere promotional puffery. Theoretically, it is not possible for every Tom, Dick, and Harriet to be leaders, because leaders, by definition, need followers.

Avis understands this. In the 60s, Hertz was the undisputed leader in the car rental business, and Avis was ranked second. A bright advertising copywriter saw that the company could capitalize on its silver medal status by confessing it, adding that because they were number 2, “We Try Harder.” The public loves an underdog, and as a result, Avis’ slogan is viewed as one of the most enduring and endearing ad campaigns of all time.

Besides, what is a leader?  Is it enough to be just the biggest, or the most profitable, or is there more to it than that?

Rarely are the people who we see as leaders – to quote Lady Gaga – “born this way,” though some have personality traits or come from circumstances that make it easier to learn the skills necessary to become a true leader.

Leaders are passionate about their goals and have the charisma needed to infect others with their enthusiasm. They love people, yet in part remain aloof, above the crowd. They are results-driven, yet share the credit abundantly and continuously strive to improve their product, service or character.

In essence, being a leader isn’t so much what you are as it is what you do.  A leader spends part of each day reading, learning, thinking and inspiring.

Similarly, companies that lead are innovators. They’re doing today what the industry will see as common practice in a few years.

Proclaiming your leadership is the hollow boast of a coup leader in a Third World backwater. Having others ascribe leadership attributes to you is wining a Nobel Prize. 

Control can be taken, but leadership is given by those who follow, willingly, eager to engage in a shared vision of a better company, industry, country or world.

Beware carelessly applying the ‘L-word’ to yourself or your company. It is an accolade best bestowed by others, and, once affixed, it imposes a lifelong burden of proof.  The safest and most honest approach is to eschew use of the term in advertising entirely. True leaders are known by their deeds and what others say about them.


Scott H. Lewis is managing director for the CIS region of Signature Europe. A former journalist and public relations counselor, he has provided crisis, public speaking and presentation training to senior executives across Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. His new book, The Backward Thought Leader, will be published in December. An American, he has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine for more than a decade.

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