by Steve Adubato, PhD

Sometimes leadership is hard to clearly define, but very often you know it when you see it. Instead of seeking a generic definition of leadership, it is more useful to ask those who actually lead to describe how they do it and the lessons they’ve learned.

Over the years this column has featured advice from CEOs, school principals, heads of non-profits, coaches of sports teams and college presidents. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and there is no single best way to lead.

Consider Annette Catino, CEO of QualCare, a full service, provider-sponsored managed care organization, (disclosure: QualCare is an underwriter of a public television series I anchor.) who says; “Leadership sometimes means having to ‘piss people off.’” Catino argues that it’s inevitable that some people are not going to like your decisions and that the leaders who try to be popular with everyone, ultimately fall short because they are reluctant to “confront people who need to be confronted.”

She also says that one of the lessons that she’s learned is that it’s better not to ask for permission, but rather ‘beg for forgiveness.’ She says good leaders don’t wait for official blessings to try things out. Catino’s concern is that many managers have the following philosophy; “If I haven’t explicitly been told yes, I can’t do it.” While a more assertive leadership-oriented approach says; “If I haven’t been explicitly been told no, I can do it.” She says there is a world of difference between these two approaches and that great leaders surround themselves with people who practice the latter.

Leadership is often lonely. Annette Catino says many leaders don’t realize that even though you can be open and collaborative and seek feedback from those around you, ultimately, “you make the final decision.” Think about it. The top people in an organization get paid the most and have the greatest stake in the outcome. Therefore, to expect that everyone around you will have the same level of commitment is wishful thinking. It is lonely at the top, even if you have a great team at your side. You get paid the big bucks because you make the big decisions and to complain about it is not only counterproductive, it also turns people off and potentially undermines your ability to lead.

Many managers talk about the importance of sharing information and being transparent; however, according to Catino, great leaders should communicate on a “need to know basis.” Sometimes in our desire to share information, we give people information they can’t handle. This can produce confusion and frustration. The lesson is to be open but prudent with what you share.

Also, many leaders are obsessed with collecting reams of information before they make a decision. Annette Catino concludes that; “if you wait until you have enough facts to be 100% sure…it’s almost always too late.” She argues that you shouldn’t take action until you have enough information that gives you at least a 40% chance of being right; but if you are reluctant to make the call at that point, because enough data hasn’t been gathered, you run the risk of “analysis paralysis”. She and other experienced CEOs argue that ultimately gut instincts in business and knowing not only what to do, but what not to do, separates the truly great leaders from those that are mediocre at best.