Why is it that some people think that to be a leader of people, or to be seen as an expert in a function, they need to be viewed as “right” all of the time? Whether you lead a team or function of one, real leadership is about creating more leaders. This line of thinking stems from an unfortunate situation that I was involved in last week while trying to help the HR leader of a large global organization.

Let’s start with the backstory. A CHRO (I’ll call him John) has lead HR of the organization for the last 7-8 years. He and his team struggle to create a robust, results-driven talent acquisition function. They shift from centralized to decentralized and now back to centralized, led by a new leader from outside of the organization.

John identifies a candidate that I happen know. This candidate (I’ll call him Sam) currently leads a hybrid TA function that includes internal recruiters, sourcers, and a large RPO relationship. After a long interview process, John finally makes Sam an offer. Sam accepts despite his reservations about the structure and scope of the role, as well as the department’s history of not getting it right… ever.

After he accepts, he gets a counter offer from his current employer. Unlike a typical counter offer scenario, Sam declined additional compensation from his current employer and decided to stay put. Obviously, this irritated John.

Having been privy to the situation, I was happy for Sam, but I knew the outcome left John in a tough spot. So, when another TA leader (Jen) that I knew indicated that she was looking to return to Michigan, I immediately thought of him. Even though I’m in the recruiting business, I made the introduction with a clear expectation that I didn’t want compensation if all worked out. I saw it as an opportunity to help two people reach a common goal.

All I asked was that John kept me in the loop. A few days later, a junior member of John’s staff reached out to Jen for a phone interview. Keep in mind that this junior recruiter was about to interview a VP-level candidate for a role he would eventually report to. To make things more interesting, the individual informed Jen that he interviewed for the same role and got declined. Meanwhile, they had another candidate lined up for an offer.

Since this was contrary to the information John shared, Jen was somewhat put off and wondered why they wasted her time if there was already another candidate. I received the update from Jen via email. I forwarded it to John and asked about the status of the role, and why I wasn’t updated to manage the expectations of such a senior-level candidate. What transpired next was nothing less than shocking.

John let me know that his team member never indicated that another candidate was in play and that he didn’t want to speak with Jen nor me ever again! This was an extremely odd response from someone at this level who hadn’t even investigated the situation yet. I asked Jen to detail her conversation, or phone interview, in writing so I could provide additional documentation to John.

Again, John lashed out and went on a tirade unrelated to the documentation. He didn’t admit that the candidate may have been misled—maybe because the junior team member applied for the role and was declined. Remember, this is something he disclosed to Jen in the phone interview.

What is real leadership?

This is more than just the issue of managing the candidate’s expectations; it’s about the definition of leadership. To John, leadership was about being “right” at any and all costs. Not once did he admit to there being a potential problem. Not once did he offer to investigate the situation. It was all about deflecting. Instead, he tried to degrade the candidate he never spoke with and threatened to never use my firm as a vendor.

So, here’s the big question: what is real leadership? Is it a dictatorship? Is it about being right all the time? Is it about control? Is it about being the smartest one in the room?

If you Google, “what is leadership,” you’ll notice slight similarities in the results. But you’ll also notice the disagreements. I’m not talking about leadership styles, as those vary greatly. What I’m getting at is, what’s underneath? What are the commonalities of great leaders?

4 Attributes of Great Leaders

Although there are many more, lets look at some of the basic traits of great leaders.

Great leaders admit they are not perfect. Effective leaders are honest. They know they need to set an example, so when mistakes happen, they let the pieces fall. Great leaders know how to clean up the mess (and aren’t afraid to admit they made it).

Great leaders hire greater team members. True leaders surround themselves with teams that are smarter and better at certain jobs than the person they report to. As a leader, you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. You need to be the smartest one in the room based on the hiring decisions that you make!

Great leaders can give an accept constructive criticism. Effective leaders understand that the right team members will strengthen each other through questions and suggestions. These leaders can deliver and receive questions without feeling like their authority is in question.

Great leaders become great leaders because they focus on their team. Folks want to work for someone who invests in their growth and spends time with them—not a leader who spends more time playing golf and romanticizing over his or her own brand. A great leader understands that the more effort they put into their team, the stronger the loyalty.

This was an unfortunate situation that caused me to look at my own leadership attributes. I’ll be honest: I have fallen short in some of these areas. The blessing is that the circumstances reminded me to be honest with myself. If you’re a leader, I hope it does the same for you!