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Illustration by Leo Acadia

Be a Leader Worth Following

​Every so often, you meet a special kind of leader. The person may be a teacher, a sports coach, a supervisor, or even a CEO. These special leaders may differ widely in their individual personalities and working styles, but they all share one quality: people are compelled to follow them and do so willingly. 

“A leader’s real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation, but happily,” novelist David Foster Wallace once wrote in an acclaimed essay on leadership and presidential campaigns. “Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.”

Leadership expert Darlene Hunter, who discusses leadership issues on her own radio show, knows what it means to happily follow a compelling leader. She describes what it was like to work for the most effective leader she’s ever encountered in this way: “If this particular leader asked me to work in Alaska,” Hunter says, “I would simply ask, ‘When, and where do you want me?’”

What, exactly, makes these special leaders so compelling? Their effect on those who work for them can be mysterious; some followers say it just seems to happen, without intentional effort. 

“We usually do this on a subconscious level first, and only realize at some point down the road that we have committed ourselves to that individual,” says Michael Sarni, CPP, a veteran security manager who has led teams of up to 60 people in the security industry. “True leaders are difficult to quantify, even though volumes have been written about the concept.”

Nonetheless, we asked some experts to dive deep into the concept of leadership, break down its components, and give examples of the qualities and attributes that, although not common within the general population, are common among compelling leaders. 

And while the debate over whether true leaders are born or made may never be definitively resolved, most agree that security managers who develop these qualities and attributes within themselves—that is, who take the time, effort, and actions required to do so—can make tremendous progress toward becoming leaders their teams will follow.​


In trying to better understand compell­ing leadership, it often helps to make the crucial distinction between managers and leaders. “This question dates back at least to Plato’s Republic, if not earlier,” says security executive Chris Stuart, vice president for client relations and business development at Top Guard Security. Stuart and Sarni are both members of the ASIS International Leadership and Management Practices Council. 

Managers, experts say, are ultimately focused on bottom-line, dollars-and-cents realities, and sometimes on professional advantage. “They are driven by balancing budgets, toeing the line, enforcing established rules, and generally only concerned with how they look to upper management,” Sarni says.  “While those are important concerns for career success and profitability of an enterprise, they are devoid of the human element necessary to maintain momentum.”

Leaders, on the other hand, operate on another plane entirely. “Leaders think outside the box, effect change, inspire people, and boost morale. They are in tune with the human element that drives every operation forward, and are adept at getting better performance voluntarily from their teams,” Sarni says. As a result, the leader’s staff members are usually actively engaged in their jobs and vested in outcomes, not just put­ting in eight hours and staying out of trouble, he adds. 

While the attributes Sarni mentions may serve as a good baseline description of leadership, the concept can be broken down further. What does it mean to be “in tune with the human element?” One example is offered by Bonnie Michel­man, CPP, a past president of ASIS. When asked to name a great leader, Michelman cites Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary who endured 27 years in prison to later become South Africa’s president. “He really walked the walk,” she says.

In particular, Michelman quotes a remark from Mandela that illustrates the importance of the human element in leadership—namely, the range of emotion, and the combination of strength and sensitivity, that compelling leaders show. 

“Leaders must be tough enough to fight, tender enough to cry, human enough to make mistakes, humble enough to admit them, strong enough to absorb the pain, and resilient enough to bounce back and keep on moving,” Mandela said.

This range of emotion translates into an emotional intelligence that connects the leader with his or her team. “They tap into our emotions on particular issues and show us a path to address concerns,” Sarni says.  

Moreover, good leaders “do this for the greater good,” Sarni adds. This is an important distinction, as “others do it deviously to obtain dubious results,” such as a power-hungry dictator who uses emotional manipulation as a means toward evil ends.  

The emotional connection forged between leader and follower is reflected in the words used by experts when asked to describe the compelling leaders they have worked under. “Motivational,” “inspirational,” “charismatic,” “committed,” and “passionate” were among the adjectives that came up during interviews for this story. A leader’s passion for a mission makes it natural for them to lead by example, even at times when they are not consciously trying to transfer new skills to their followers. “I learned from her even when she did not know she was teaching,” Hunter says of her favorite leader. 

And Stuart argues that the leader’s commitment and focus on moving ahead generates an underlying optimism that buoys followers. 

“The leader is taking their charges forward to a destination—with the implication being that the destination is better than the present. So in that sense, leaders’ stock in trade is that most crucially undervalued human condition: hope,” he says.   ​


Another attribute compelling leaders have that reinforces their inspirational and charismatic qualities is a willingness to take risks, experts say. 

For a security department leader, this quality is certainly relevant, Stuart explains. To give one example, the overwhelming number of options available in security software, hardware, training, and equipment may mean that the manager needs to take risks in deciding how to use scarce resources in a way that will protect the organization today, tomorrow, and in the near future.   

But these risks are calculated ones, he adds. Risk taking is more than just a willingness to make a change; equally important is measuring the capabilities and limitations that are needed before making a bold proposal. 

“Good leaders make risk taking look easy because they have calculated a myriad of things prior to even presenting the idea,” Stuart says.

Besides being risk takers themselves, great leaders also pass on this attitude to their staff.  In part, leaders do this by creating a safe environment for staff to take ambitious actions—and, sometimes, to fail. “They make you feel that making a mistake is not the end of the world,” Hunter says. “They make you feel that you can do whatever is expected and more.”

Indeed, a safe and supportive work­­­place is the best type of environment for creating sustainable change, Michelman says. To illustrate, she refers to human behavior expert Abraham Maslow, who asserted that people are often more motivated to avoid failure rather than to strive for success. In contrast, a compelling leader “asks people to step up,” and provides a supportive environment for doing so. “I think that’s very important,” Michelman adds.

Inspiring staff to take risks is related to another attribute of leadership, experts say: leaders empower. They do this in a various ways; one is the consistent recognition of staff accomplishments. “They make you feel great about being part of the company or organization. They make you feel valued and appreciated,” Hunter says. “They make you feel as if what you have to contribute is important.”  

Another aspect of empowering leadership is that the leader is uninterested in maintaining a hierarchical, micromanaged relationship of the “I’m the boss—and you work for me” variety. “They don’t demand fealty,” Sarni says.

“I always felt like an integral part of the team and felt more like a business partner than a subordinate, although I knew he had the final say,” Sarni says about working for a compelling leader. “He would also defer to me when he could. This allowed me to feel more vested in the process and grow professionally, while it freed him up to focus on other issues.” 

That sense of partnership also holds true when it comes to communication. Experts agree that compelling leaders have great communication skills—and, equally important, that these skills work both ways. In Michelman’s view, compelling leaders are superb listeners—a rare skill, in her experience. “I think very few people have good listening skills where they really, really listen,” Michelman says. 

So, when an employee encounters a leader who encourages his or her followers to stretch themselves, who maintains a supportive environment for innovation, who gives staffers enough time and space to grow and achieve, and who really listens, the clear message for the employee is: I will benefit from working here. As Michelman says about her experience working for a leader she respected: “I knew I could reach my potential with this leader.”  

In these positive situations, respect quickly begins to flow in both directions. 

“I had a respect for his abilities and achievements, and I believed that the mission would be enhanced—as would my personal career development goals—by following his lead,” Sarni says about his favorite leader. “He respected my ambition and drive and willingness to reach beyond my comfort zone. I respected his openness to my ideas.”​

Born or Made?

There’s a common debate in leadership circles, a subject that frequently comes up whenever the concept of leadership is discussed: are true leaders born or made? 

Hunter, and others, say it is a combination of both. “They are born with the caring components that make a great leader, one that people want to follow,” she says, but adds that “I believe that they are also made from working with other leaders and learning what works and what does not. I believe that they all have the will and desire to be the leader that others want to follow.”  

Stuart has a similar view. “Special leaders, the rare kind that stand out over history, are traditionally exceptional people, who are acutely aware of their surroundings,” he says. This awareness often means they are especially open to educational or career opportunities that will help them develop, which allows them to “charge into circumstances primed for their success.” 

And so when one surveys an industry and sees a dearth of compelling leaders, the problem is likely not that those in leadership positions were not born “with the right stuff.” Instead, it’s more likely that those leaders are effective managers who got promoted and are not making the effort to develop into compelling leaders. 

“Unfortunately, most managers are hired or promoted for a quantifiable skill in an administrative or technical function, and not for their ability to lead people. And rarely are those leadership traits developed once in the role,” Sarni says. 

While the common complaint of “there are so few true leaders anymore” is still frequently heard, there’s also reason for optimism regarding the future of leadership. Many if not most employees want to work for compelling leaders, and that desire drives a demand that never diminishes.  

“People would move a mountain for leaders that they know trust, respect, and value them as an associate,” Hunter says. “They like to feel good about coming to work.”

 And so, that demand means opportunity for those currently in leadership roles in the security industry, or any other field. They can become compelling leaders if they put in the time and effort to develop the right internal assets, and then lead not only with their heads but with their hearts.  

“They have to be willing to make changes and adjustments,” Hunter says. “They have to care more about the people that they lead.”