By Barry Jackson, author and leadership expert

Whether we care to admit it or not, even the most independent of us model our behaviour on the behaviour of others, usually people we look up to. Depending on who these people are, the consequences for our career, financial, personal even spiritual success can be very interesting. When I was a child (the earth was still cooling back then), no-one but an Olympic athlete would consider running a marathon.

Now we see everyone from late teenagers to 88 year old grannies running the distance. At the same time, we have a national obesity problem. The fit are getting fitter, the fat are getting fatter and it’s not because the healthy are exploiting the fatties! Fit people are simply modelling their behaviour on a different group of people from fat people.

The same is true if we aspire to leadership. Allow yourself to be led not only by those who have reached a level of leadership that you aspire to but make sure they have done so in a manner that fits with your values. So, what do such people look like? What qualities give you the clues? It’s all a matter of who you admire, who you look up to. Here’s my list. You draw up yours.

The first clue will come from the people working under them. People don’t just work hard for them, they self-sacrifice for them. Why? Because their leader presents them with a cause, not mere tasks. For a truly great leader, every person’s wellbeing is a cause. Every decision taken will be taken with the best interests of every individual and the achievement of the cause. Guided by these principles, a leader will not fall into the trap of pursuing goals while taking no account of the feelings of their team. Neither will they become so obsessed with not upsetting people that essential tasks remain uncompleted. Their decisions are recognised by everyone as the right decisions.

Secondly, people in their organisation know that they are valued for who they are, not just what they produce. There’s a paradox here. The paradox is that staff performance always goes up when their performance is not the main thing for which they are valued.

Thirdly, the best of leaders encourage initiative. Here we run into another paradox. To encourage initiative means encouraging your people to try things they haven’t tried before. If “this is the way we always did it,” that is not initiative. The trouble is that anything that hasn’t been tried before might not work. What! Try something that might not work! Absolutely. Ask any innovator. Great leaders will never allow fear of failure to get in the way of innovation. Pursuit of a cause takes courage and how else will his team keep him ahead of the competition? Ah, but how do leaders avoid giving free rein to the more reckless personalities in the team? They manage risk, that’s how. They allow anything to go, but only as far as the idea stage. As well as encouraging innovation, they role model evaluation. How is this going to work in practice? What do we stand to gain if this works? What’s the worst case scenario if it all goes pear shaped?

Of all the qualities that define a great leader, none is more important than the word “encourager.”

“The person who fails to encourage you has forfeited the right to influence you.” With these words, Robin Sieger puts his finger on one of the qualities that most defines a leader. Are you ready for another paradox? Never treat a person’s weakness as an opportunity to criticise. Why not? Even criticism can be constructive. No it can’t. When was the last time someone criticised you and made you feel encouraged at the same time? You know how criticism makes you feel? Put down, right? Under attack, maybe. Blamed.

Makes you feel that points are being scored. That’s how I feel. What the great leader offers you are tips for improvement. Oh come on! That’s just a play on words. No it’s not. There’s a world of difference between a suggestion for improvement and criticism. A tip for improvement can be delivered with respect and with affection. It offers an escape from any suggestion of blame. The person on the receiving end feels put right, not put down; feels that the suggestion has been delivered with her best interests at heart, not with the motive of scoring points off her. You’ve been on the receiving end of both. You know the difference.

When you see a great leader, you know the difference between that person and a mere person in charge. Your feeling for this person goes beyond mere respect, beyond mere liking. You wouldn’t want to work under anybody else. This person inspires the very best in you. You would do anything for his or her cause. This person is no mere winner; this person is your hero. When you can say that of someone, you have found your role model.

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