Have you noticed there's a difference between a good leader and a great leader?

Good leaders have an incredible array of skills. They communicate effectively, they set strategy for the firm, they encourage employees to excel, they make smart decisions. In many ways, a good leader is bursting with talent. It's someone you want to follow. It's someone who attracts good people. In situations where there is no easy course of action, a good leader dons the captain's hat and sets the best course.

However, we all know a great leader when we see one. There's something different about this person, even though it can be heard to pin down.

Here's the difference. Great leaders are surrounded by great people.

I've seen this dozens of times in business (and in life). It's a bit confusing at first. You think, wow-this person has the skills of a great leader and yet there is something missing, there is something that's not quite right. To carry the "ship setting a course" analogy further, it's as though the main leader is doing all of the right things but looks bad because the crew doesn't have a clue.

The problem is that good leaders never quite rise to a high level of greatness because they miss that one important factor. Some of us have been "thrown into leadership" at various jobs, and that's a good thing. It stretches us and makes us grow. But when you are thrown into a role like that, it usually means you didn't get a chance to pick who you are leading. They were also thrown to you.

I've lived this in my own life and in business. In one leadership role a few years ago, I felt like a miserable failure. I was doing all of the right things. I was communicating and delegating. I was educating and encouraging. Yet, the team itself just wasn't that motivated. They had issues. I didn't feel like a great leader and I wasn't a great leader, but I had to realize that part of the reason was due to the team not functioning well together from the very beginning. It was a dysfunctional team and I became their dysfunctional leader. Looking back, I should have never even take on the role.

Here's where it might be a good idea to take a step back and do some self-analysis. The outcome of this exercise might give you just the right amount of encouragement and motivation to make some changes in how you lead.

Ask yourself:

Did I pick everyone on my team?
Do they also have a high level of skill and talent?
Is there anything I can do to get help them rise above mediocrity?
Is there a potential for my team to achieve greatness?

Do I need to make a change and find like-minded people?
Am I part of the problem?

If you get answers you don't like, it might be time to make some changes. Sometimes, that's moving people into different roles. Or, it might require that you take a different role. In my case, it meant I had to leave the entire organization.

I've interviewed many great leaders before. I remember meeting an executive at Disney quite a few years ago. I'll never forget meeting her because meeting "her" meant meeting her team. Everyone was there, including a few animators, a few marketing execs, and a few technical folks. I had the overwhelming impression that the people who worked for her were incredibly smart and capable, and that made me think she is a great leader. She picked these people. She built the team. That's what made her a great leader. Now, maybe she picked flawed people to lead originally (we all have flaws), but she motivated and directed them to greatness. They had the potential to become great.

Moving from good to great (excuse the turn of phrase) can require some tough decisions on your part. Maybe your team is not ready for greatness. Maybe you are not the one to lead them to greatness. Time and time again, what I've seen in business leaders is that the really great ones always lead a really great team. They surround themselves with highly capable individuals, and there really isn't any other option. The good ones put up with a team that is only marginally capable. They don't quite realize that their own ability in leadership depends on the team they are leading.

One last thing. Look at the image above. A good leader can bark and bark at the rowing team all day long; she can be the most intelligent, capable, and talented coxswain ever. But we would not call this person "great" if the team does not win. Good leaders can lead a lousy team to failure. Great leaders know how to propel a team to greatness.

Do you agree? Disagree? I'm curious to hear your views.

Published on: Oct 30, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.