So much is written about being a good leader that you could be forgiven for believing that you need to be superhuman (and a speed reader, to keep up with the latest leadership theories). But what exactly does it take? Nick Holley, of Henley Business School, explores.
It’s perhaps true that there are a few great leaders who are either naturally talented and/or are in the right place at the right moment to exercise their particular brand of leadership – for example, Napoleon Bonaparte, Sir Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
These great leaders are interesting to study and can help to inform the development of your personal leadership skills, as long as you ensure that you’re not overwhelmed by their leadership style and/or you’re not trying to find some form of quick recipe for leadership.
There’s no one right way of leading. And trying to be someone you aren’t will cause more problems than it solves. One of the best ways to become a good leader is to develop into the type that suits your interests, values, circumstances and personality – authenticity is crucial.
Connecting with your people
Start by generating a list of words and ideas you might associate with good leaders. It would be surprising if this did not include at least some of the following: strategy, vision, direction, empowering, encouraging of a culture that supports the work of the organisation, a good communicator, a role model, the public face of the organisation, personally credible, courageous, influential, tenacious, energetic, an arbiter, a reference point, an orator, a decision maker – to name but a few possibilities.
As you think about these words, it becomes clear that many have a ‘people’ dimension
and this is where good leadership comes into play. Good leadership is inextricably linked to the impact that people make in the workplace. It’s about galvanising and unifying activities. You can’t lead inanimate objects such as computers, desks or offices – you can only lead people.
Think about a past, one-off event that you particularly enjoyed at work and run through it in your mind. Then write down a few words to describe what you were enjoying. If your example turns about to be primarily concerned with things, or processes, rather than when you were leading, or being part of, a successful team, a leadership role is likely to not be a natural choice for you, and becoming a good leader may be hard.
Being interested in objects or processes is not a natural spring-board to securing the best possible future through the alignment, commitment and talent of the people within the organisation – it’s not impossible. As Marcus Buckingham says: “Play to your strengths and you will be successful.” If being a technical expert is your thing, then that’s great – the world of work needs expertise.
How to be a balanced leader
If your response to the question about a one-time event you particularly enjoyed at work does involve people and team working and you are, for example, using the words: ‘when we…’ or ‘when the team…’, then leadership is likely to be a more natural option for you.
If this is the case, then what’s the balance required of a good leader? Your ability
to flex your behaviour when required? For example, no single behaviour or business activity is considered the answer to all problems. So, in the case of your behaviour, how can you build up your confidence and leadership ability, so that you know:
- when to speak and when to listen
- when to direct and when to coach
- how to be driven but humble
- how and when to exercise the proverbial ‘iron glove’ that Napoleon Bonaparte talked about
- how to be optimistic but pragmatic
- how to be strategic but in touch with people’s issues
- to enable business as usual while moving towards a different future.
Getting to know yourself
The key to being a balanced leader is to make sure that you understand your biases and preferences – and develop self-knowledge.
There are many ways to better understand ourselves – those who know us outside of work, friends and family will often be good places to start to further develop our personal
Other options for generating selfknowledge include talking with colleagues, completing psychometrics and 360-degree feedback instruments, coaching, development programmes,
neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and experience that is reflected upon and learnt from.
Hand-in-hand with knowing what we’re like is accepting this and appreciating that connecting with people is the key to leadership and that this can be done in many ways, quietly or more loudly, from in front or from behind. Accepting this and accepting oneself “warts and all” is a great platform for becoming the best leader you can become.
Accepting your flaws
We’re all the sum of our best and worst characteristics. Trying to be the perfect
human being is much more likely to be damaging to yourself and those around you than simply accepting that you can do great work while being flawed and not trying to hide those flaws.
There are many ways to lead and to lead very successfully, the question is which way is best for you and how can you continue to play to your strengths, while being balanced, especially by others who have the skills which may not be natural to you. Above all, be authentic and congruent.
Good leaders need to give of themselves. How do you respond to someone who gives little away? Naturally, we tend to match this behaviour and end up having little or no connection with such a person – the opposite of great leadership. If you can’t connect with people, it’s difficult to know how you’ll influence them to create a successful future.
Accepting your flaws
Do you feel good about being a leader in your current context? Does it fit with your personal values? Can you see a route from where you are now, to where you would like to be in, say, five years?
Sometimes we rise to leadership by a planned process, sometimes we’re thrust into a leadership role by circumstances. This can be a wonderful way to become a good leader because an external stimulus allows us to become the leader that was lurking inside but had not emerged into the light of day.
So, regardless of your level within your organisation, consider how you fit there as a leader and what you can do right now in order to step up and become the best leader you can be.