There are many ways to explain effective leadership. One way is to enumerate the pitfalls, i.e. how not to lead. In this thought process, leadership is about delegating work to other people, and there are several mistakes you could make about delegation: not delegating, not trusting people to do their jobs, and blaming people for failing to deliver. However, simply negating the pitfalls does not necessarily make you an effective leader.

How do we define effective leadership? I find it an interesting question. Suppose you can’t impose any expectation on your team members: you can’t make them do things for you, you can’t tell them to raise their standard of work, you can’t make them adhere to a deadline. All you get is from what people bring to your table at their free will. Maybe you can ask them in a nice way, and if they’re willing, they’ll do it—eventually. Maybe the people you work with are inconsistent. Sometimes they bring you great results, and sometimes not so good. Maybe you are the only one on your team and there is nobody to lead.

You might be the lone nut starting a movement. The lesson is that if you are the lone nut, embrace and nurture your first follower because they show everyone else how to follow, and “three is a crowd, and the crowd is news.” Or find and join the lone nut who is doing something great, and show others how to follow.

A hands-on approach is to “practice what you preach,” or “if you build it, they will come.” You might have to start by building a proof of concept prototype by yourself, and once people grasp the idea, they would be more willing to contribute to incremental improvements. This differs from not delegating, in the sense that in the beginning of an idea, you might find nobody to delegate to, as opposed to there is already a group of people you can potentially delegate. But more resources become available once your vision gains momentum. A great example of such leadership end-product is the Linux kernel.

Another thing you can do is to appeal to people’s objectives for themselves. You can be a servant leader that helps them accomplish these objectives. In a work for hire arrangement, the salary could be part of that motivation. For volunteer work, it could be that people want to feel needed, or they have a greater cause they want to address. Sometimes people enjoy doing stuff that they’d be willing to do it for you. Sometimes people enjoy learning, and you can teach people to develop their skills. But as a leader, the least you can do is to understand what motivates people and to find ways to facilitate the motivation in order to maximize their potential.

There is also the designer prospect. Limited by what you have from the contributions by the team members, which contain possibly broken pieces, how do you put things together to achieve the best combined sum? In my work place, they once held a micro-kitchen cook-off contest where contestants take the ingredients solely from micro-kitchens—there is a variety such as cheese, eggs, cold cuts (ham, turkey, grilled chicken, prosciutto), fruits (apple, banana, orange), vegetables (carrots, celery), hummus, cereal, and snacks (chips and cookies)—and make a dish out of them in under 30 minutes. It is a creative challenge to transform limited ingredients into something amazing. Of course, just blindly putting everything together won’t work, so you still need to choose your ingredients wisely. In a way, this is a caricature how leadership works. You are constrained by your access to people of various skills and levels of commitment, and there are variable ways to combine their efforts into an end product. Sometimes you have to be selective whom you work with. A great leader is able to accomplish more with what he already has. It takes a great deal of thoughtfulness to maximize the outcome.

So this is how I would define effective leadership: a leader who demonstrates a clear vision, who can motivate people to maximize their potential, and combine their efforts into the greatest possible outcome. Of course, if you happen to have people of great skills and commitment in your team, this is the one main reason to appreciate them greatly: because they make your life as a leader easier.