Leaders err when they believe someone should follow them simply because they’re the boss; because they have a leadership title. Yes, people will comply with this sort of “I’m the boss” leadership to keep their paycheck and job, but they only commit to leaders worth following. If you are a positional leader who is hung up on a title, here is a humbling perspective:

  • A title doesn’t make you a leader; it simply buys you time to become one.
  • It’s a foolish notion to believe anyone has been made more competent by virtue of a change in title.
  • Leadership is performance, not position; it’s a daily choice you make, not a special place at a conference table where you sit.
  • Don’t assume you have followers, you may only have subordinates. How you act as a leader determines whether a subordinate converts to a follower; subordinates comply whereas a follower is more likely to commit.  

There are a number of key traits that make a leader worth following. In fact, you may recognize many from what you expected from your leaders as you rose through the ranks, and still expect from them to this day.

1.      Competence: Here’s a fair question: Do you know what you’re doing? Your people may like you, but if they see those who follow you closely getting routinely led into minefields and blown up, they’re not likely to line up behind you for the same abuse.

2.      Strong work ethic: Work ethic is more than an energy issue, it is a character issue. Work ethic goes beyond the hours you put in; it’s more accurately determined by what you put into the hours while you’re at work. Do you go the second mile daily, persist in the face of difficulties, and lead by personal example rather than by personal convenience? If so, you’ll inspire others to do likewise. If not, your sloth will set a sluggish pace and example for the entire team.

3.      Teachable: Do you work on yourself? How many leadership books do you read each year? How many courses do you attend? Are you open to feedback, or have you assumed a “been there, done that” attitude that’s turned you into a know-it-all? Suffering under a leader afflicted with an “intelligence arrogance” is exhausting; while one may endure occasional arrogance from a boss, arrogant and ignorant is pushing it.

4.      Honest: Do you lie? How about the little “white” lies like instructing the receptionist to tell a caller you’re not in when you are? Do your people see that you’re honest with customers and forthright in your advertising? Working for a liar is unsettling; people know if you lie to others you’re also probably lying to them.

5.      Keeping commitments: This is an integrity issue. Do you consistently do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it, and how you say you’ll do it? And do you do so without excuse and regardless of the cost?

How about keeping this commitment: do you show up to work on time? Tardiness is a character flaw; it shows an unwillingness to keep the commitment to be at work at a certain time—a promise you made when you took the job.  Tardiness also demonstrates an arrogant and hypocritical double-standard: the same rules that apply to others don’t apply to you. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve worked at a company, or how high your position; no one “earns” the right to not keep a commitment. If this fact makes you uncomfortable, then good! Get your act together and be on time; early is even better!

6.      Acceptance of responsibility. Does the buck stop with you, or when things go awry do you whip out your black belt in blame and point to other people or conditions to excuse your failures? Do you admit mistakes and share what you learned from them with your team? Little is more disheartening for a follower than to have a whiney, sniveling, victim as a boss.

7.      Developer of human potential: Do people grow under your leadership? Are you a consistent coach, trainer and mentor? Do you provide the tools and opportunities people need to reach their potential? Would your people say that you are more likely to stretch them or maintain them? How many of your people have been promoted in the past two, five or ten years? Leaders are in the stretching business. If you’re not consistently leaving people better than you find them you’re more babysitter than leader.

8.      Consistency: Do you exhibit the seven traits listed above consistently, or only every once-in-a-while? Are you disciplined? Do you prove yourself over again each day, or only when your back is against the wall and time is running out? Even the most hapless sluggard may manage to do the right thing occasionally. But effective leaders do the right things consistently, not just when they feel like it; or when it’s easy, cheap, popular or convenient.


There are numerous other traits that help determine whether a leader is worth following. The eight here are a good start. In fact, if your people were asked to score you from A to F in each of these categories, how would you fair? Could you be considered as a leader worth following, or simply a pretender with a title? If it’s the former, congratulations! If it’s the latter, you have work to do; starting now.

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Comment by Ed Allen on June 26, 2014 at 10:04am

From a mentor of mine...."Rank does not grant privilege, rather it invokes responsibility"

Comment by Marsh Buice on June 26, 2014 at 6:22am
Excellent Dave- every dealership should share with their mgmt team and use this as a daily checkup. I'm definitely sharing with my team.
Comment by Frank Martin on June 25, 2014 at 5:48pm

I enjoyed that. Great peice Dave, Thank you.

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