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What makes a great leader?

It's often been said that some people are born leaders. The question is, will those people lead their business, institution, congregation, or whatever group they head to greater heights of success and fulfillment? Or will they use their position simply as a means to further their own personal agenda and goals?

Headlines might make you think the latter is the more common scenario, that excessive greed and a “me first” attitude have become the mantra of today’s leaders. 

But I don’t believe it. 

Yes, there are some mediocre or downright terrible leaders out there across the spectrum of society. But there are many more good leaders – and some truly great ones, a number of whom I have had the privilege to know.

Indeed, in my more than 50 years in the business world, most of it spent matching organizations with the right high-caliber executives and board members, I have come to recognize – and appreciate – the qualities that make certain people highly effective leaders. 

What I find to be the overriding qualities of all truly great leaders are an unwavering integrity and a passion for working hard to earn their position of authority and trust.

Some of those traits may indeed be innate. But what I find to be the overriding qualities of all truly great leaders are an unwavering integrity and a passion for working hard to earn their position of authority and trust.

The late Leon Levy was one such leader. Widely considered a Wall Street investment genius, Levy was an extremely smart analyst who built Oppenheimer & Company into a powerhouse securities firm, then sold it and formed Odyssey Partners, which he proceeded to grow from a $30 million private investment firm to a $3 billion one. 

In the process, he earned himself an impressive fortune, but he did not do so by placing his own interests first. On the contrary, he exhibited exceptional concern for people around him and led by example, donating more than $140 million of his personal wealth to a variety of non-profit institutions. He even warned of the “perils of greed” in the subtitle of his autobiography, "The Mind of Wall Street."

Putting other people’s interests ahead of their own is, in my view, probably the most important characteristic shared by highly effective leaders. It may sound quaint, but great leaders wake up every morning and worry about doing “the right thing” – for their customers, their employees, their stockholders. They think about long-term results rather than quarterly earnings. They are good listeners and value the views of others.

Take Anne Mulcahy, the recently retired CEO of Xerox. Mulcahy was known as a consummate team player, renowned for her hands-on style and for getting to know the people she was working with. She stressed the need to listen, particularly to employees and customers, and acknowledged the importance of hard work in achieving her position. 

Mulcahy always put the company ahead of herself, ascribing personal humility along with professional will as a key trait of great leaders, whose ambition is first and foremost about the company, not about themselves. As she remarked in a 2003 speech, “If you focus on the institution, your contributions are much more likely to be lasting ones.”

Or look at Sam Palmisano, chairman and former CEO of IBM. Palmisano too was known to be an attentive listener. Not only did he listen to employees at all levels of the organization, he talked to customers every day, frequently traveling around the world to meet with them in person. 

He reorganized the company so that all its segments were more integrated and collaborative with each other, and retrained the company’s focus on customizing offerings to better meet clients’ needs. 

He made a commitment to developing the next generation of leaders, understanding that taking a long-term view was far more important than achieving short-term success. And he was always humble. 

He himself once said, “The CEO is not the brand. It is not about you. You are a temporary steward of a wonderful enterprise, so leave it in better shape than you find it.”

In a nutshell, great leaders are supportive and respectful of their people, their predecessors, and their successors, and they exhibit loyalty to both colleagues and friends that inspires loyalty in return. 

When I think of such true leaders, yet another name comes to mind: John Loudon, Sr., a former chairman of Royal Dutch Shell who served on the board of Russell Reynolds Associates until his death in 1996 at the age of 90. 

When bad weather kept him from flying from Europe to attend my daughter’s wedding, he arrived the next day for the luncheon with a bouquet of red roses for the bride. He was a gentleman first, and a good businessman second. And by placing high value on friendship and others’ well-being, leaders such as Loudon make the world a better place.

Russell S. Reynolds, Jr. is the Founder and CEO of RSR Partners.

Editor's note: In the original version of this piece the author wrote that Odessey Partners grew into a $300 billion company. It actually became a $3 billion company. Also, the original version of this opinion piece said John Loudon served on the board at RSR Partners, but actually he was at the first firm founded by the author which was Russell Reynolds Associates.