Five Qualities Good Leaders Express

Leadership is essential to getting things done. But the qualities of good leaders—self-knowledge, commitment, willingness to look to others for support, being open to change, and a desire to go the extra mile—can determine whether anyone chooses to follow.

© GSUSA. All rights reserved. (Photographer: Quad Photo/Karineh Gurjian-Angelo/Dedjora Von Jutaz)Leadership is a word Girl Scouts use a lot. We help girls develop into leaders. We recruit volunteer leaders. We plan and carry out operations under the direction of board and staff leaders. But what exactly does this mean? What is leadership?

A leader is someone who helps others do and become more than they ever thought possible. Leadership is about unlocking potential, whether individual potential or that of a group, company, or organization. It is not about telling people what to do, but inspiring them to see what they are capable of, then, helping them get there.

© GSUSA. All rights reserved. (Photographer: Quad Photo/Karineh Gurjian-Angelo/Dedjora Von Jutaz)Leadership is a hot topic. An online search found 22 million Web site listings for the word "leadership." Why? Because good leadership gets things done. But the quality of leadership determines the difference between a team passionate about what they're doing versus one that is following orders.

Where You're Going

Effective leaders know what's important to them, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what drives them, and where to draw the line. Put it together and it boils down to a leader who has self-confidence and clear values.

© GSUSA. All rights reserved. (Photographer: Quad Photo/Karineh Gurjian-Angelo/Dedjora Von Jutaz)Leadership Quality 1: Good leaders know themselves.

Knowing oneself is necessary when faced with challenges or ethical choices, communicating with those who have different ideas, making decisions, and identifying sources of satisfaction.

"We need to be clear about our own values, priorities, and preferences and not let someone else, or society, define them for us," said Marian Ruderman, a group director at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina. "By clearly identifying those values, priorities, and preferences we can articulate what we want, develop benchmarks, and make better choices."

For Girl Scouts, the Promise and Law provide a solid foundation. That's why it is critical that every member start from the same basis. As Karen White, GSUSA Director of Volunteer Development and Diversity, explained: "The values of an individual must match the values of the Girl Scout Movement. We then encourage an individual's future growth through training, mentoring, and coaching."

It's by providing learning opportunities, both formal and informal, that Girl Scouts helps girls, volunteers, and staff members develop stronger self-awareness.

Willing to Commit

In addition to being self-aware, an effective leader is not afraid to take on responsibilities. Sometimes it requires putting the organization or group first—and keeping it there.

Cynthia Thompson, Chair, National Board of Directors, GSUSA, said, "I believe a lot of people understand what it means to be a leader, but the difference comes down to commitment. True leadership requires you to make sacrifices, including putting others before yourself."

Leadership Quality 2: Good leaders are committed.

"Sometimes our use of the word 'leadership' can put people off," said Gayle Davis, GSUSA Senior Director, Council Resource Development. "A potential volunteer may think 'I can't do that; I've no experience or qualifications.' When really what we're looking for is a mentor, a person who prompts others to be their best, someone who cares and listens, someone confident in her beliefs and is willing to be there."

What Gayle describes is a committed leader. For Girl Scouts, that means being committed to "inspiring girls with the highest ideals of character, conduct, patriotism, and service so that they may become happy and resourceful citizens" (as stated in the Blue Book of Basic Documents).

Spectacularly Unsuccessful

In his article, "Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives," which appeared in Fast Company magazine in July 2003, Sydney Finkelstein chronicles the characteristics of leaders who fail—not just ineffective leaders but those who have reversed the fortunes of thriving corporations. Which bad leaders placed high on this notorious list? According to Mr. Finkelstein, it's those individuals who think they have all the answers.

Leadership Quality 3: Good leaders know they don't know everything.

Believing that an effective leader is one who knows it all is one of the most dangerous misconceptions about leadership. Human frailty comes into play whether sitting in a cubicle or a corner office. So while the ultimate decision and responsibility may lie with one individual, it is incumbent upon her or him to gather information and trust others' points of view before developing a plan of action.

Cynthia Thompson reflected, "The most challenging element of leadership is to bring individuals together to move forward, but that's also the most rewarding. It's so wonderful when it does happen. To get there requires maturity to recognize that your way is never the only way."

A Place to Try

Girl Scouts offers girls and teenagers a safe environment to give leadership a try, to test and stretch themselves. Setting goals, planning trips and events, earning patches and awards, and organizing service projects, there's no limit to the experiences a Girl Scout can have.
The critical component is girls doing it themselves, even if it means something does not get done or is done differently. For some adults, the latter is very difficult—especially those with tendencies towards perfectionism. But letting go is how mutual trust is built.

Leadership Quality 4: Good leaders are open to change.

Change is one of life's most obvious factors, yet remains one of the most strongly resisted. As Peter Senge, an expert on managing organizations, says, "Everything is in motion, continually changing, forever adapting." Effective leaders recognize the value of change.

Yet all too often, it's much more comfortable to ignore the inevitability of change and to keep things the way they've always been. Unless a leader's goal is to bankrupt a business or ensure no new members join an organization, that approach cannot work. Changes need to be anticipated and responded to if growth is going to continue. And that applies to minor changes, as well as major ones.

With Small Acts Come Big Things

There may be a time when one is called upon to take on challenges greater than one can ever imagine. Joan Weiner Jones, the current Overseas Committee Chair and leader of Junior Girl Scout Troops 1 and 17 in Kuwait can attest to that. This year, she and her volunteers have worked diligently to keep USA Girl Scouts Overseas active in the tumultuous Middle East. "Some of the small, effective acts of leadership are going the extra mile, when you think you can't," Joan wrote in an e-mail. "Setting the scene with small leadership acts gives you credence and respect when big things happen."

Leadership Quality 5: Good leaders go the extra mile.

Some leaders have a lifetime of small acts of leadership as extraordinary encouragers, strong organizers, good persuaders, or charismatic speakers. When it comes down to it, how we lead is a reflection of the characteristics and values that define who we are. As Juliette Low's brother, G. Arthur Gordon, told his audience at the 21st annual Girl Scout Convention in 1935, "Life revolves itself principally into what we do and what we are, the former largely controlled by the latter."

A Leader Can Be...

Being an effective leader does not always require moving heaven and earth. A leader's role can vary and be effective in small, yet extremely powerful ways.

  • A clarifier listens, summarizes, and makes things clearer.
  • A coach encourages others to develop their skills.
  • A facilitator helps the group set goals, make decisions, choose directions, and evaluate progress.
  • A delegator helps each group member apply her talents and interests to the group's goals.
  • An initiator gets things moving.
  • A manager helps coordinate the parts of a project and keeps an eye on progress.
  • A mediator helps resolve differences.
  • A networker connects people with people and people with ideas to move the project forward.
  • A problem-solver suggests solutions and ways to get things done.
  • A visionary sees creative solutions, new directions, and possibilities.

"Setting the scene with small leadership acts gives you credence and respect when big things happen."

Adapted from LEADER, Fall 2004. © Girl Scouts of the United States of America.