What makes a great people leader?

Written by
Eugenio Pirri

05 Jun 2017

05 Jun 2017 • by Eugenio Pirri

I’ve met people leaders from all walks of life. I’ve met those who excel at the role – it’s a natural talent. I’ve met others who fail to succeed in a leadership position. I’ve even met people leaders who categorically didn’t want to manage people yet felt they had no other choice.

Being a great people leader is not simple, in my opinion. It takes a combination of skills, traits and behaviours to thrive in this role. It also takes a deep understanding on what it means to be a leader of people. I alluded to, in my last column, the moment where I believe I made the move from people manager to people leader; when I realised that I wasn’t just hiring, developing and paying people for a job. I was giving them, and their families, an opportunity to live the life they desired.

People management vs people leadership

Leadership guru, Peter Drucker, once said: “Management is doing the things right. Leadership is doing the right thing” and I believe that every great people leader has this instilled inside of them. Managers hold on to their people. Leaders develop and let them go. Managers tell. Leaders inspire. Managers hog the spotlight. Leaders let others shine.

In my experience, too many leaders are actually managers. This isn’t their fault – often they are promoted to a leadership position because they are technically brilliant, though sadly, haven’t been given the same opportunity (or perhaps they haven’t desired to) develop their people skills. Or they thrive for career progression, but aren’t yet ready to put their team first. Others are ‘psychopaths’ – oozing charisma and grandiosity (which can be mistaken for vision or confidence) – qualities which can often help one get ahead in business.

People-centric leaders

No, in reality, very few people are actually great people leaders. There are great leaders – people who have a dream, get things done and create profitable businesses – but sadly not all of them can honestly say they put their people first.

Because being a people-centric leader starts with liking people. You may laugh, but the number of times throughout my career where I’ve heard ‘people leaders’ say “I don’t like having employees” is no joke! You need to be able to understand your employees; inspire them, encourage them. And that only comes naturally if you have a serious like of people and desire to see them succeed.  This sort of selflessness and emotional intelligence is essential, but are the skills missing on most leadership job descriptions.

EQ is a core strategic imperative in directing the intangible and unpredictable feelings of the workforce; it renders inspirational directors not over-emotional, but effective. HR might be learning to use technology to support their capability, but you cannot be a true people leader if you don’t have the ability to get out into the workforce and converse with your people and feel, inside, what’s really happening. A spreadsheet can never replace the importance of emotional intelligence.

A great people leader also has a combination of the following: commercial acumen; diplomacy; leadership knowledge; operational excellence; strategic vision; impact; kindness; openness; determination; ability to make tough decisions; integrity and accountability.

Now can you see why many leaders struggle to be true people leaders?! You need to be emotional and soft, yet a strategic hardliner; creative yet pragmatic; managing the books and the board, yet raising the bar with surprising ideas.

You almost need a dual personality to be a people leader. To be multi-faceted; switching mindset at the drop of a hat, expected to emphasise with, and influence, every element of business.

This combination of qualities and approaches could drive anyone to distraction – but will not defeat the seasoned people leader.

Next column: how to ensure for people leadership success