In life you have a choice.  Be the sheep or be the shepherd.  While being the sheep is not threatening and it is not very demanding, as a person, being the shepherd has tangible value.  You get to learn new things, experience more, make decisions and determine the outline of your work.

Being the shepherd means you need to learn about being the leader.

Becoming the leader is usually not difficult.  In most social gatherings you become the leader by acting like the leader.  Few will ask you to stop.  If you hold yourself out as the leader many will follow.  In business it is a bit harder but surprisingly, not so much harder as you might think.

Good leaders have purpose on their side.  They know what they need to achieve and they know that they cannot achieve it by themselves.  Good leaders lead but they do not execute.  Naive leaders think that setting out the plan or goal is what leadership is about.  It is not.  Execution is what matters.  Ideas are cheap.

Good leaders make the execution of the task easier.

Good leaders communicate, clarify, motivate and encourage.  They set standards and measure performance against goals.  They accept responsibility for what happens.  They treat performance shortfalls as a measure of their own weak efforts.  Perhaps they hired poorly, or did not set the goal properly or failed to provide the right or sufficient resources or they underestimated the complexity of the task.

Good leaders mentor.  They connect the lesson to the shortfall.  They admit error quickly and publicly when it is their own and quickly and privately when it is another’s.

Good leaders trust. Essentially you would not be here if I did not think you were good enough to do the job.   Because they trust, good leaders delegate well and do not micromanage.

Good leaders lead in order to achieve something.  They are not in it for the credit and when credit is due, it belongs to those who executed the plan.

Good leaders grow followers, by making the process such that people want to be involved.  To contribute.  To learn.  So they themselves acquire the skill of the leader.

Good leaders retire sooner than weak leaders.

This last point is often overlooked and there are reasons it should be true.

If you have been a good leader there will be readily available successors.  Well trained and capable.  These people need to advance and in fairness, so do you.  If you have no successor you cannot go.  That is bad for you as you need to grow too, but more than that you did a poor job as leader regardless of what else you have done.  Good leaders grow people and they grow themselves.

If you are in it for the credit, the power and the prestige, then you will not want to leave.  That is the one true indicator of a weak leader.  Do dictators ever retire?

Everyone needs to go away.  As leader, even as a good leader, you accumulate dissatisfaction.  Not all of the people at any one time, but if you make objective decisions, over a long time, you will hurt everyone at least a little and at least once.  Eventually you accumulate too many things that need defending.  Time to go.

The time you use to defend older decisions is time that is not available to lead effectively.  Find a new pasture.

Good leaders are good followers.  They know the whole process and do not assume things about how it all works. They do not need to be the leader at all times and in all circumstances.

Good leaders are always learning because they are aware of how little they know.

Everyone has a leadership opportunity somewhere in their life, find it and act on it.

Sheep or shepherd, your call.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.