THE BLOG
10/17/2014 05:51 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

A Question for Voters: What Does it Take to Be a Leader?

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With elections forthcoming -- mid term in the U.S., and local elections in Canada -- the question "What does it takes to be a leader?" ought to be on our minds. Author Michelle Ray has written a newly published book called Lead Yourself First: Indispensable Lessons in Business and in Life. I interviewed her to better understand what qualities we should be looking for in the candidates we vote for:

Question: Many people enter politics after a successful career in business of some kind. What principles of leadership in business are most important for politicians to apply in office?

Ray: First, accountability. Politicians are elected due to the expectations established during their campaigns and voters expect them to deliver what they promise. However, they often underestimate the savvy and intelligence of voters. Next, authenticity and reputation are highly attractive leadership traits that are far more significant than title or position. We consider a candidate's agenda, but we also take into consideration credibility, likeability and trustworthiness.

We prefer to express our support for a person who has an undeniable persona of genuineness; one who understands how to keep their ego in check. Whether one agreed or disagreed with his politics, the late Jack Layton, former federal leader of the opposition and the NDP in Canada appealed to so many people because of his passion, purpose and principles. He wore his heart of his sleeve and endeared himself to voters across all political lines.

Question: When you are deciding to vote, what do you personally look for in a representative?
Ray: I look at a candidate's character, credibility and whether they are committed to doing their absolute best on behalf of their constituents. I grew up in Australia, a country where voting is mandatory. Therefore, the act of exercising my right to vote is something I do not take lightly. Accountability is a two-way street. We expect our leaders to take the lead, yet we complain when we don't like the outcome. If we as voters are apathetic, we have no right to judge and instead should look in the mirror. Change starts with us.

Question: Which leadership skills sets do you think are more important for public officials -- to be entrepreneurial self-starters, able to stick to their principles and if need be go it alone, or to be service-minded collaborative team players?

Ray: Both are important. We want our leaders to be decisive; to be bold and to do what they said they would do. In my view, if a leader feels strongly about an issue and chooses to do nothing because they fear how others may perceive them, they are ultimately doing a disservice to themselves. On the other hand, situations may arise that require the leader to operate collaboratively, even if they disagree with the popular view.

Question: In your chapter "Flexing your Resiliency Muscles" you talk about how adversity builds strength. Politicians often tout their hardship stories or the difficult jobs they have had - in the military for example - as evidence of character. But how can we tell from watching someone if their life experience has actually built resilience?

Ray: Leadership is about character, not title. Politicians want to be liked and their stories of resilience, personal hardship or adversity are a way of connecting to people. Humility is often preceded by some kind of struggle; or an admission of making mistakes. Humility is not humiliation. Humility is a strength and leaders who have a real story about surviving a hardship, be it war, bankruptcy... a major loss, have the potential to powerfully impact others by demonstrating that they, too are fallible...human. How will we ultimately know whether their stories are genuine examples of resiliency and character, of a person who has truly taken the lead through adversity? The truth has a way of revealing itself over time.

Question: Leadership is a topic that has always been in the spotlight, and we have recently witnessed poor leadership on many fronts, including politicians...where the light often shines the brightest. As voters, what should we be telling them?

Ray: We are indeed fortunate to live in a free, democratic society and it behooves us to take a stand. The adage "actions speak louder than words" is definitely applicable in this instance. We can act by our using our voices, choosing to vote and leading ourselves first. If we settle for mediocrity or a "better the devil you know" attitude, then we are equally to blame for the troubled status of leadership.

Based in Vancouver, Canada, Michelle Ray (@michelleraycsp) is a leadership, accountability expert and Founder of the Lead Yourself First Institute. She is the author of Lead Yourself First! Indispensable Lessons in Business and in Life (Changemakers Books, 2014).