Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from No Fear of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal with Risk and Change, by Gary Burnison. Copyright (c) 2011 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

The People Business of Being a Leader

Although leaders must be able to face risks and battle the odds, they cannot succeed without a talented team of followers. This is why leaders are in what I call the "people business." Highly effective leaders live by the fact that people are truly their organization's most precious resource. Attracting, developing, and retaining talent is paramount.

It has been said that 90 percent of strategy is execution, and 90 percent of execution is based on people. Despite all of the technological innovations of the past century a simple truth remains: people make businesses successful. People are the instruments of change. With the right people on his or her team, a leader has greater courage to take calculated risks.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg executes his strategy by empowering the talented individuals who want to work for him at city hall. "You couldn't recruit half of these people to come here or anywhere else if you didn't delegate, " Bloomberg told us. Giving subordinates authority and responsibility builds the team and raises the level of each person's contribution.

Although the people side of a business seems straightforward, it is extraordinarily complex. It is not just a question of hiring talented individuals. More important is ensuring that the people are linked to a purpose that is greater than any one individual.

John McKissick has amassed more football victories than any other coach on the high school, college, or professional level. With such success, it's not surprising that, at times, he may have as many as one hundred players on his squad at Summerville High School in Summerville, South Carolina. McKissick's job as the leader is to turn each individual, whether the star player or the third stringer, into part of a disciplined, cohesive team.

A leader builds a team through competency and caring. With competency, leaders demonstrate the depth of what they know, which instills confidence in followers. At the same time, when followers know that the leader cares about them personally, they, too, become fearless and will take the necessary risks to accomplish a mission. In war, those risks are literally life and death. "When the soldiers know you care for them, and they know you are competent, they will literally put their lives on the line for you, " Hagenbeck added.

Motivating and managing a team requires that leaders have a high degree of emotional intelligence. As a physician and an empathetic listener, Daniel Vasella learned to read the unspoken communication of body language and emotion that is part of any interaction. Later as CEO and now as chairman of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, he used his awareness to understand how people's emotions--especially fear and anger--have the power to influence perceptions, decisions, and behaviors.

Vasella also demonstrated another important ability shared by leaders who are admired and accomplished: they know themselves. They understand that leadership begins with who they are as people--their honesty, humility, and integrity--and it ends with personal accountability for failure and team recognition of success. In between are long hours, passion, a relentless and insatiable competitive spirit, superior decision making, and a genuine caring for others.

I recall one of the most powerful leadership lessons that I ever learned while I was the COO of Korn/Ferry and on track to become the CEO: that leadership is all about the other person. No matter the topic--whether someone is being fired or has just told you about a serious health issue--that person should leave your office feeling better than when he or she entered.

As the leader it is not just what you say, but what you don't say. As the old adage goes, "Actions speak louder than words, " and nowhere is that truer than in the executive office. Everything that a leader says and does sends a message. Words can destroy even the most noble of actions. As I've learned personally over the years, being a leader sometimes means biting your tongue, for example, choosing not to respond to an angry e-mail right away, knowing it's often better to wait. For the CEO there is no off-the-cuff remark. Leadership demands introspection and an understanding of the clout that one's words and actions carry.

As the team comes together, roles, responsibilities, and authority need to cascade down from leader to followers along with a clear picture of how each part relates to the broader vision. As I have seen in my organization, people want and need to know how they are contributing to the journey. When they understand, they will give their all for a chance to be part of something bigger than themselves.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.