Recognizing True Leadership

Leadership is highly valued in our society, with leaders usually reaping the greatest rewards in business. However, while many aspire to the mantle of leadership, we too often confuse some of the perks and byproducts of leadership — social status, celebrity, wealth, visibility, management, or operational authority — with leadership itself. However, leadership is about far more than fame and fortune. If you strip away the trappings, leadership boils down to one thing: the ability to positively affect others. Simply put, in any given organization, community, social group, or field of endeavor, leaders don’t just make a difference; they are the difference.

The importance of leadership was paramount to us as we prepared our 36th Annual Report on Black Business, featuring the 2008 listing of the BE 100S, the nation’s largest black-owned businesses. In the arena of commerce, in particular, there is nothing like the threat of recession, economic turmoil, and market uncertainty when it comes to separating the real leaders from the pretenders. In the midst of a rapidly shifting global economy, seemingly filled with limitless amounts of both adversity and opportunity, true leaders stand out from the rest.

Leaders don’t chase fortune and fame; they serve missions and are able to articulate a future for that mission in clear, simple language. They understand that wealth and power are not primary objectives, but inevitable byproducts of fulfilling a need and making a consistent, positive investment in achieving a larger goal. Leaders have vision.

Leaders are able to adapt, evolve, and expand to fit the times, without ever losing sight of their mission and core values. They see change not as a threat, but as a natural part of their environment, and understand that what worked yesterday will not necessarily work today or tomorrow. They are willing to strike out in new directions to get better results. Leaders take risks.

Leaders make a tangible difference that goes beyond revenues and profits, measurably influencing and changing lives. They understand what matters to people, including their workers, customers, and partners, and can get them to act to serve those interests. Leaders motivate.

Leaders rarely need to actually declare that they are leaders; their work, products, services, personal conduct, and professional performance speak for themselves. Leaders lead by example.

Leaders don’t do things to, with, or for people; they do things through people. They are masters at communicating the vision, inspiring and equipping their people to serve the mission, welcoming their ideas and contributions, and clearing the way for their success. Leaders empower.

For great examples of leadership, you need only look to this year’s Companies of the Year: Harpo Inc., Corley Automotive Group, and Atlanta Life Financial Group.

Few people in the world enjoy a greater combination of fame, fortune, social status, and wealth than the inimitable Oprah Winfrey, CEO of Chicago-based Harpo Inc., our 2008 Company of the Year. Yet, for all the ways she is celebrated — as a dominant media force; an extraordinary producer for television, stage, and screen; a world-class philanthropist — she is rarely celebrated as one of