What does it take to be a great leader?

Written by
Wanda Wallace

19 Dec 2016

19 Dec 2016 • by Wanda Wallace

As a society we have deep divisions about what makes a great leader. There are three trends that fuel these debates.  

First, we tend to love leaders who are charismatic – witness any number of recent political campaigns where the more charismatic candidate won. However, in business charisma isn’t absolutely necessary. What is essential is the ability to communicate, connect with people and build trust. In my experience, the natural level of charisma can always be improved by focusing on communication skills, executive presence and emotional intelligence. For some the development is easier and faster than for others.  

Second, we tend to believe, fueled by movies, TV series and popular media, that business leaders are all overly aggressive, self-interested, terrible leaders of people. It might surprise you that I often meet excellent leaders who genuinely care about their people. I regularly ask a workshop of high-potentials to think about someone they know reasonably well in their current company and who they admired as a leader. At least half the participants easily identify an admired leader – almost everyone eventually thinks of someone they admire. What sets those admired leaders apart from the rest? 

Third, great leadership is never one single thing. It’s not a set of characteristics that someone has or doesn’t have. Very few are perfect at everything. What sets a great leader apart from the rest is far more about the ability to balance than to check off a list of qualities. 

Great leaders are great balancers

A great leader can balance two extremes. Great leadership is about identifying trade-offs, understanding those trade-offs and having the courage to make a choice anyway. Every quality in the list of admired leaders requires a balance. Each can be overdone, each can be underdone, each has a dark side if used in the wrong place at the wrong time. Being a great leader requires understanding the delicate balancing act between two opposing sides – with just the right amount of tension between them. Better still, the balance is a learned skill.  We start with a preference for one side or the other and with time, experience and a lot of reflection, we learn how to even the scales.

What are the big balancing acts that are required of great leaders?

A great leader has to be able to make and convey rational, sound decisions while at the same time demonstrate the ability to understand and discuss emotions – those of yourself and others. We often believe any demonstration of emotions invalidates our decisions as rational. It makes us look weak. There is valuable information in the emotion that will only strengthen the quality of a decision if it’s considered in balance with the rational.

The importance of confidence, vulnerability & trusts

Confidence is essential, without it we don’t follow.  But if you cannot show vulnerability, humility and openness, the confidence and gravitas comes across as arrogance and coldness to those impacted by your decisions and trust is nearly impossible to build. 

For example, Jim Kinsella, CEO of European storage start-up company Zettabox and former executive of Interoute and MSNB.com told a great story on my radio programme Out of the Comfort Zone about being able to bridge the gap between showing confidence and demonstrating vulnerability.

Kinsella, who has worked in technology but who is not a technologist talked about spending time with programmers. Sitting with them and asking them lots of questions in order to really understand what their challenges were. The programmers feel valued and Jim understands their challenges. A less confident manager would struggle with looking like he didn’t understand the technology and wouldn’t invest the time listening.

On top of all of is this is the dynamic of trust. I cannot over-emphasise how important trust is and if you want to be trusted, you must understand why people trust you or don’t trust you.  There’s much to say about trust but at its heart it is simple: If we connect with each other over something we have in common and you do what you tell me what you are going to do, trust can begin to grow.

Strategy vs details

Many skilled experts, and women especially, face the complaint that they are not strategic, often simply because they are so good at being tactical and getting things done. But being great at strategy without mastery of details is also not inspiring. One of my favourite leaders from a large European insurer explained this well. He said when presented with technical detail, he always wants the ability to drill deeply all the way to the bottom. But the secret is not to stay at the bottom – you have to come all the way back up to the top. It’s the balance that is so important.

People are often either highly diplomatic or highly candid. A great leader needs to be able to use either skill at the right time.   

In summary, being a great leader is about balancing polar extremes – knowing which side to favor at which moment in time. The skills are learnable with feedback, experience and most importantly reflection.