As a lawyer and a software engineer, I endeavor to base assessments on facts and empirical evidence. In times of crisis, leadership at all levels is scrutinized. Can leadership be objectively assessed? Or is leadership something that can only be subjectively assessed? That question turns on whether there are definitions that exist separate and distinct from the facts. If such definitions exist, from there, we can apply those definitions to the facts to formulate a conclusion.

The definitions offered herein are not subject to debate as they're straight out of the dictionary. As for whether the qualities I'm outlining here are hallmarks of leadership, that might require subjective evaluation. Then again, if we look at recognized leaders in history, what qualities do they tend to possess? If someone doesn't possess the qualities discussed herein, are they more or less likely to be truly regarded as leaders?

What are the qualities of leadership?

Defining the Words

A good place to start is with the word “lead” itself.

Lead: To be a route or means of access to a particular place or a in a particular direction. To be in charge of or in command of.

The concept of leadership is about one person acting on behalf of one or more other people. Leadership is also about going in some direction to achieve some objective. That implies that leadership is about moving in what could be judged to be the correct direction so that the correct objective can be achieved.

One approach in describing what something is can be to provide an example of what it's not.

Mislead: To cause (someone) to have a wrong idea or impression about someone or something.

Two additional words that come to mind are Accountable and Responsible:

  • Accountable: Required or expected to justify actions or decision; responsible
  • Responsible: Having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one's job or role

The implication of being accountable and responsible is that there is some duty.

Because the context is about acting on the behalf of others, going in a chosen direction to achieve an objective, a leader must show some regard for the future. When acting on behalf of others, duty is all about the best interest of others. Leaders avoid conflict of interest from subordinating other interests to their own self-interests, with respect to the future.

Prudent: Acting with or Showing Care and Thought for the Future

Duty and prudence imply that a leader is a fiduciary, which is a relationship that has trust as its cornerstone. When a leader advocates a point of view, we know instinctively whether they believe what they say. It also implies how decisions get made.

Equitable: Fair and Impartial

Fair: Decisions are made based on facts, and always in the best interest of whomever is to be served regardless of whether it is in the best interest of the person tasked with making the decision. That, however, is not enough. Impartial: Such decision must be unbiased and not in favor of a specific individual or group of individuals.

Communication is always key. To act on behalf of others requires sound communication.

Respond: Act or Behave in Reaction to Someone or Something

How do good leaders respond? Like leading vs. misleading, it's good to flip the problem on its ear and review from the opposite perspective.

React: Responding with hostility. If a leader is to engender trust such that the people for whom he or she acts on behalf can be guided in a correct direction, there can't be an adversarial relationship between the leader and the people being led. Leaders respond; they don't react.

So far, nothing speaks to knowledge and skill. But there's a fundamental threshold issue to address, it's whether a person is capable of being a leader. This is over and above the technical qualities required for the task at hand.

Competence: Having the Necessary Ability, Knowledge, or Skill to Do Something Successfully

Somebody can be physically at the top of some organizational structure by virtue of some other process. Do they occupy the position held solely because of merit? Or are politics involved? The person may be expert at the tasks accomplished by the team, and yet totally incompetent insofar as being a leader is concerned. In management, this is the Peter Principle where people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. There's also the notion that past success isn't a guarantee of future success.

Of course, no one person is an expert in all things. A leader defers to others who know more about an issue.

Deference: Humble Submission and Respect

Deference is about knowing what one doesn't know and acknowledging that fact so that the person who's responsible for achieving some objective can fulfill that duty. Often, leading means stepping back to let others take the reins on a particular issue. A hallmark of recognized great leaders is that they don't ever seek to portray the myth that they are the smartest person in the room on all topics.

This is often referred to as leading from behind and servant leadership. A leader understands that their role can often be one of support and to do the blocking and tackling in order for others to be able to do their jobs. This is where ego becomes an issue. Ego is about a person's self-esteem or self-importance.

All leaders have egos. They believe they can do the job and they often believe they are the best person for a job. Winston Churchill was a prime example of that. The slippery slope is when the leader lets their duty to others become subordinated to their notion of self-importance. Generally, a good leader is aware.

Aware: Knowledge or Perception of a Situation or Fact

Leaders know the facts and they act on the facts. Perhaps more importantly, they communicate the facts. In furtherance of their duty, a leader sees to it that those facts are communicated to the people on whose behalf they act.

Empathy: The Ability to Understand and Share the Experiences and Feelings of Another

There's a saying that hypocrisy has a way of revealing itself when the shoe is on the other foot. Leaders take the time to understand other points of view. Empathy doesn't mean there must be agreement. Understanding is about having a sense of why others think and feel as they do.

Assessing Leadership

Is the person being evaluated a leader? Don't confuse leadership with their official position. Often, those two things coincide, and all too often, they don't. Leadership can be objectively assessed. It's important to note that words like “perfection” don't apply. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is correct on 100% of things 100% of the time.

Another word that I don't think applies is “inspire.” What makes somebody a leader is what they do on matters they have control over. Inspiration is about how others feel. Leaders don't have control over how others feel or how they're motivated. Leadership enables - but that's a different concept. How you feel and how you're motivated, that's up to you. That's all about leading yourself. In this regard, there are definite boundaries between the objective and the subjective evaluation of leadership. Make no mistake that on an objective basis, without getting into specific idiosyncratic behavior and personalities, you can objectively ascertain whether the leadership label applies by squaring observable fact to defined terms. A person's actions either comply with the definition or it doesn't. There is no in-between.