- Leaders come from all backgrounds and plenty of people who are not in leadership roles have leadership qualities.
- Good leaders are good communicators and bring out the best in others.
- Good leaders are also strategic and need to understand the bigger picture.
- Communication must be two-way. It is vital to listen to others.
- Self-review and getting feedback from others are important tools for successful leadership.
Put the term ‘leadership’ into an internet search engine and you will find approximately 137 million articles. From scholarly papers to ‘how to’ guidance notes, the concept of leadership has been the focus for business and academic debate for well over a hundred years.
So why is leadership so widely reviewed? Is it as complicated as it sounds? Are you born a leader? Can you develop leadership skills? Do you have to be Steve Jobs, Angela Merkel or Sir Alex Ferguson to demonstrate leadership?
Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and from all backgrounds. Leadership is not dependent on your job title; there are plenty of people with the word ‘leader’ in their job title who fail to lead. Anyone can lead, and plenty of people who are not in leadership roles require and use leadership qualities.
What makes a good leader?
Leadership is about inspiring others to follow your vision, and it is about engaging and delivering results through your people.
True leaders are essentially great communicators. When I am running training sessions with whole teams I can often tell who the leader is from the way the team interacts with him or her. There is respect for the leader and people listen when the leader speaks. Often the team will look to the leader when difficult issues are raised. There is a delicate balance here; too much deference can be a sign of autocratic leadership; too little and the leader is not making enough of an impact. Good leaders are authentic, know their own leadership style and bring out the best in others. They can be loud, extrovert and sociable or quiet, thoughtful and introverted.
Good leaders are strategic. When we move into leadership roles at work we need to move beyond just doing our job to getting results through others. So we need to understand the bigger social, economic and business picture and establish clear goals and strategies. We need to balance the needs of the task with the needs of the team and the individuals in the team. Too often, leaders focus on the task to the exclusion of everything else, which can lead to disengagement, dissention and a lack of respect. To be a successful leader you need to bring others along with you and this means clear communication and utilising others to deliver on team objectives.
Good leaders communicate clearly and engage others in their vision. This means that they communicate their vision at every opportunity, not just once. They make their vision, goals and strategies clearly understood and help others to understand their role in achieving these. Central to engaging others is to make them feel involved and that their role is important in achieving business objectives. It may be an urban myth that a NASA cleaner, when asked what her job was, replied ‘to put a man on the moon’, but it makes an important point about the value of all members of an organisation.
Leaders who communicate only in one direction are not as effective as those who take the time to listen to others. Leaders who fail to listen to others can begin to believe their own hype and so miss the underlying disagreement or dissatisfaction of others. In meetings, for example, many leaders dominate the conversation, putting forward their opinions forcefully and eloquently, but if they do not involve others they risk alienating key supporters.
If there is more than one leader in the meeting it often becomes a series of monologues with no real listening – and arguably no real value. A more effective leader ensures that there is a real balance between stating their point and engaging with others. The focus needs to be on facilitating the discussion through good questioning and listening so that others feel truly heard and truly valued. Great leaders see meetings as an opportunity to engage the hearts and minds of others. The meeting is about getting ‘buy-in’.
What about you?
The ability to review yourself is also a sign of good leadership. It can be lonely at the top. I have worked with many senior leaders who have forgotten the value that comes from feedback. In coaching senior leaders I have found that many think that they will ‘be found out’ at some point.
The feeling of, ‘how did I get here, I’m just a boy/girl from… (insert background, class and education here)’ is very common. Having someone you trust give honest, open feedback is invaluable whether you are a leader just starting out or a leader at the very top.
Asking for feedback from others and really listening to what they have to say is one of the marks of a great leader. Ask for it too frequently and you can be seen as needy; never asking for feedback and you are bordering on arrogant. Feedback needs to be specific, though. The generic, ‘how do you think I’m doing’ will tend to get the generic answer, ‘you’re great!’ So narrow down your feedback to get specific information: ‘What’s one thing that you think I’m doing well on this project? What’s one thing you think I could improve upon?’ Good leaders press for this information from those they trust. Then they act upon it.
Leadership will never be simple because it involves people, and people can be tricky. Get it right, however, and good leaders, like good teachers, will be remembered forever by those whose lives they influenced.
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