Greatness is a perception by others. What makes a leader great is more than achieving the mission, goal, or results – greatness is also about how he or she got us there. It's a complex set of factors not adequately described by a couple of words – but we can get in the general vicinity with these three traits:
saying what you will do
doing what you say
inspiring others to do their very best to achieve goals/results.
George Washington is admired as a great, if somewhat reluctant, leader. These two stories from the closing days of the Revolutionary War highlight his ability to inspire followers and achieve seemingly impossible results.
The momentum of the war was shifting in favor of the Colonial Army under General Washington's command and he wanted to press this growing advantage by crossing the Delaware River again to mount an unexpected attack on the British and the Hessians. Unfortunately, there was a huge problem – most of the troops had fulfilled their commitment to serve and were preparing to return home.
The troops had turned down an offer to pay them for continuing another 6-weeks, then the General visited the bivouac areas of the various units to speak with the men. His message was that there would never be another point in their lifetime that they could make such an important contribution to the freedom of their country as they could in the upcoming battle, AND that he would be honored to fight beside them to win the victory. The troops committed to joining him.
What money could not accomplish, a humble personal appeal to do for the greater good won their hearts and shortly, won the war.
After winning the Battle of Yorktown, General Washington and his senior commanders received a message that British General Cornwallis wanted to surrender. When the Cornwallis party arrived to present his sword in surrender, they attempted to present it to Washington – he refused to accept the sword and pointed to his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln to receive the sword. By this simple action, Washington made clear that he did not see Cornwallis as an equal, and, more importantly, General Lincoln receiving the sword of surrender removed any doubts that Lincoln had Washington's support and confidence (Lincoln had lost a major battle to Cornwallis earlier in the war).
Great leaders are aware of the effect of their words, actions, and messages – direct and indirect – on their followers and others, and make good use of opportunities as they present themselves to reinforce the importance of the mission and goals as well as value subordinates bring to achieving the results.
See the New World – A View from the Big Chair