What Does It Take to Be a Strong Leader?

A previous column about how to fail as a leader struck a chord with readers, so let’s dive into how to succeed as a leader.

A woman stands against a red background with her arms crossed. Cartoon arms with big muscles are drawn on the red background on either side of her.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Immediately after my article How to Fail as a Leader ran in late May — based on my interview with David Noble and Carol Kauffman, authors of Real-Time Leadership — I received dozens of emails and phone calls from appreciative readers. Their message: Thanks for listing some of our CEO’s serious flaws. We have been saying the same things to each other, quietly.

The message from “Gail,” in particular, stood out: “All of us at the head office felt an obligation of bringing it to the CEO’s attention, so we printed a copy, dropped it in company mail so he would not know who it came from. In the envelope, we put a small, folding makeup mirror and a note, which read, ‘Take a good, long look at yourself and then read the article. Both are you.’

“The next day, he called a meeting of upper management, and before everyone, he acknowledged having read the article and — close to tears — admitted that he saw himself in it. ‘Looking for sympathy,’ he acknowledged, ‘I showed it to my wife. She said, “Thank goodness these people care enough about the company and you to take this risk. They want you — and I want you — to cut the crap and make this business all about them, not you, but them. It is time for you to drop the arrogance and apologize to the people who have kept this organization alive despite its boss!”’”

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An unprepared and unqualified husband wants to be CEO

There were many more emails and voice mails in which employees and company leaders saw themselves described by Nobel and Kauffman. One that was an especially compelling read came from “Kim”:

“My husband thinks he has the skills to lead his company — to become its CEO — but I am terrified that if he succeeds through politicking and spinning a good line, he will bring it down. You must know of something he can read that might get through his thick skull. May we please talk?”

Ten minutes later, I was into a deep discussion with a woman married to “James.” She said he plays a great tune as a convincing — if hollow — speaker, having relied on the skills of the people who work with him in telecom sales to climb the ranks, but he is otherwise clueless about running the entire show. She told me he says, “Well, I’m a manager, and CEO is just a step up where you’ve got to look like a CEO and get paid a lot more, so it’s all show, babe, and all I need is a good number two to tell me what to do.” She added, “He is right about one thing: He looks like a CEO!”

She noted, “We both read you in Kiplinger, so I think he will pay attention to your suggestions.”

Being a good CEO requires more than looking the part

My call from Kim came within minutes of having concluded an interview with Adam Bryant, author of the upcoming release The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership (July 11). Bryant, the creator and former author of the Corner Office column in The New York Times, makes clear that being a CEO takes a lot more than looking like a CEO.

We discussed the major differences between a manager and a leader and the destructive attitudes that will harm both the CEO and the organization. Here’s what Kim’s husband needs to hear:

A manager waits to be told what to do, and a weak leader, or weak CEO, looks for people who will hand them the playbook rather than come up with the playbook themselves.

A manager is provided with a list of expected outcomes and the resources to deliver them. A strong leader will say, “I know you want these outcomes, but I see these opportunities that you are missing. We should go after them.” This requires courage.

A weak leader doesn’t follow through on their promises. One of the most telling things about people is their reliability, or their say-to-do ratio. “What percent of the things you say you are going to do, do you actually do?” Bryant says. “Are you reliable, dependable? If you say you’re going to do it, you do it! Do the actions meet the words? That is true throughout all of life, but especially so for someone who wants to go from manager to leader.”

A weak leader has poor listening skills. “If you don’t listen,” Bryant says, “you are not going to learn. If you don’t listen, people aren’t going to feel respected, and you will not build that loyalty and followership that you need as a leader. If you don’t listen, people will not tell you what you need to know. You will find yourself embarrassed when there is a crisis that you probably could have avoided, but people on your team decided they can’t bring critical information to your attention because you disregard what they say.”

A weak leader fails to respect the members of their team. People will follow you if they feel that you respect them, and the single most effective way to show people that you respect them is to ask, “What do you think? Please tell me what I am missing here.”

Bryant’s book isn’t a how-to, follow-the-recipe career guide. Through often touching conversations with CEOs across the country, he tells readers what strong leaders really need to know.

If Kim’s husband is reading this, now he knows some of what it takes to actually look like a strong CEO.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."