3 Key Elements of Leadership

Leaders are everywhere. They are business owners, executives and managers. They are teachers. They are parents. Sometimes they are children. Anyone can be a leader. Some people think that being a leader is something that comes with a particular job or vocation. I disagree. After having studied leadership for a number of years, I am convinced that most of us have the capacity to improve ourselves so that we can either become leaders, or improve the natural skills we already have.

There are three key elements of true leadership. The first is to set an example by living it. Many years ago Gandhi said “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”.  No truer words have ever been spoken. In order to lead powerfully we must first demonstrate the attitudes and behaviors we expect and want from others. This may seem simple, but how many times how you run across a manager whose attitude is “do as I say, not as I do”. These people may be managers, but they’re not leaders.

If you’re a business leader and you want your staff to dress professionally, you set the example by arriving in a suit every day. If you’re a teacher and you want your students to turn in their homework on time, you give them back their corrected assignments in a timely manner. If you’re a parent and you want your children to make their beds, you make your own bed in the morning. No excuses. Leaders live the example they want others to follow.

The second element of true leadership is to inspire others and give them hope. You can turn on any news channel today and see stories of death, despair and terror. It is true that terrible things have happened in the world. Leaders will acknowledge the reality and ask themselves what they can do to keep the human spirit thriving and growing? The answer is often found in hope.

There may not be easy answers to every situation. But there’s always a reason to hope. The resilience and strength of the human spirit are powerful. The strength of our spirit can help us overcome tremendous pain and grief. It is what allows us to continue to love and be loved when we feel all is lost. Leaders recognize this and remind others of it.

Finally, leaders empower others. Everyone has hopes, fears and dreams. Leaders encourage others to pursue their dreams and help them overcome their fears. This means working with others to help them understand how to prepare for success and then make their own dreams reality.

Once when I was coaching a very capable director of an international language program at a university. She expressed frustrations about lack of funding, too little time and too few resources. I replied that as an educational leader, her focus was her students. Educating and empowering them was at the core of her value system, and her work as an educational leader. If she forgot this, then potentially hundreds of students would walk away from her program disillusioned, rather than vibrant with new potential. Realizing this was true, she resolved to do  whatever she could to improve her program so students could continue to grow and learn as a result of it. She later told me that was a pivotal conversation for her, as she realized that her first order of business was to serve her students and help them become the best they could be.

Leaders look beyond themselves and their own wants. With compassion, honesty and guidance leaders will help others to reach their maximum potential as human beings in whatever way they can.

These 3 actions: living the example, inspiring others and empowering others are keys to success and genuine leadership.

See Dr. Eaton speak on this topic on YouTube:


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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