How would you identify a great leader?
Make a list of famous and infamous effective leaders in any field, at any time in history- this is already a pretty select list, representing a tiny proportion of the human population. Then count the number of them who were dynamic, visionary and charismatic- a vanishingly small group. Even among that group, as many lead their people to disasters and terrible outcomes as to successes. We – ordinary people who want to lead well – cannot really learn from them.
John Adair had the right idea when he talked about action-centred leadership - he said that effective leadership is as much about what we DO as what we ARE. He explained the eight activities that leaders undertake:
1. Defining problems, issues and tasks: identifying and naming the current priorities. Focusing on the questions that can be answered and on the work that produces the greatest benefits.
2. Planning: creating the strategies and tactics, the policies and procedures that guide action. Making a ‘road map’. Putting things in the right order.
3. Briefing: explaining and delegating work to people so they know exactly what they need to do, why they need to do it, how it will be assessed and when it’s needed.
4. Controlling: directing and coaching people’s work while they do it. Ensuring quality and energy levels are kept up and that standards are met.
5. Evaluating: monitoring, measuring, assessing and appraising work while it happens (formative) and after its finished (summative), in order to learn from successes and failures and apply that learning in future work.
6. Motivating: keeping people (including leaders themselves) focussed, confident and committed to the work. Remembering that no matter how important work is, it is being undertaken by people with physiological, psychological and social needs.
7. Organising: putting the right people and resources onto the right tasks at the right time. Applying learning.
8. Setting an example: being the person you want your people to emulate. Role-modelling the behaviour you need from your team.
Adair argued that the more time, energy and intelligence leaders devoted to these activities, the more effective they would be. But there’s a problem; performing all these activities well takes practice, and even then, people differ in their ability to do them well.
And Adair – who based much of his theories on the old certainties of his military experience and his strong religious faith – missed out on three more activities, the need for which has become more evident in the modern, fast-moving and ever-changing world.
9. Situational Leadership: Blanchard and Hersey’s idea of the need for leaders to change their behaviour to match the needs of their people and the circumstances they are in. Balancing the amount of direction and support they give to individuals in their team, based on the competence and commitment of those individuals on particular tasks at particular times.
10. Authenticity: Goffee and Jones’ idea that leaders need to ‘be yourself – more – with skill’. Having integrity in thought, deed and words that is as evident under pressure as it is when leaders are relaxed. Having a balanced and secure set of morals and ethics, critical thinking and social skills that can be drawn upon whatever the circumstances. Thinking on your feet.
11. Building diverse teams: recruiting, selecting, retaining and developing people who have different and complementary sets of qualities and competencies to the leader. This is a leader’s best insurance policy: if they can’t undertake all of the previous ten activities at an equally high level, then someone else in their team can do the stuff they cannot.
... So there’s the list of top tips for successful leadership.