I have witnessed and exercised leadership in what many would consider extremes, but I can honestly say the basics remain the same, whether in a remote village in Afghanistan, in the depths of a government department managing a crisis or in a private sector boardroom. From these experiences, I have gained an understanding of the five traits of a good leader.
The groundwork for effective leadership is usually laid long before the moment of judgement, when all eyes track towards the leader, and it is laid in deceptively simple ways. There are always examples of a natural leader rising from the chaos to bring order in times of dire need, but the reality is good leaders create an environment for success through a myriad of small steps, often long before the problems bite. All the crisis does is prove the homework has already been done. The views I offer below are based on learning from getting things wrong as often as I have got them right; gained an understanding of the traits of a good leader, but I hope they provoke some thought. My aim is also to make things practical – you cannot decide to be a different person – more dynamic, more admirable, more inspiring – but you can try and do things a little differently, so I present each thought with a challenge, that might help you re-look at your own approach.
A good leader gives people a sense of purpose. Not just a target or a task, but a reason for going into work in the first place. They link the everyday with something greater that people can be enthused or inspired by. This can seem trite, but in my experience, it is the single
greatest difference between a high performing team and one that just bumps along. Members believe they are making a difference and that they are there for a reason. The leader must find that reason, articulate it and show their own commitment to it. They must link it back to the here and now and the routine. In the simplest of terms, everyone must know why they are bothering.
In the hackneyed debate about managers and leaders, this is the fundamental difference. A manager just pushes things along, making sure people walk efficiently on paths already made. A leader should create new paths and persuade people that they are worth walking and, better yet, give them the reason and confidence to create their own paths.
The challenge. Can you honestly explain to yourself why you are doing the job and why your team and its task matters? Can you look yourself in the mirror and say you know why you are getting out of bed and that you are proud to do it? If you can’t find your motivation, you can’t lead others to find theirs.
Taking your own medicine
A good leader will do what they advocate others do, setting the example. If there is a new process, they will be the first to follow it. If there is a bad habit to be quashed, they will admit their own culpability and visibly stop the behaviour. If they don’t want emails answered at night, they stop sending emails at night. If they want the conference room left tidy, they walk out with their own coffee mug. The leader isn’t too big for the small stuff.
The challenge. Look at your policies, and in particularthose that others enforce in your name, one step removed, and ask yourself if you genuinely lead by example. Are you visibly setting the tone? When (and it will be when) you find an area you are remiss, can you declare it and reset, showing others they can admit their mistakes and improve too?
A good leader will explicitly seek to grow the skills and confidence of their team members, encouraging them to outgrow their current roles and responsibilities. The leader will enable sensible risk-taking and provide the top cover to allow people to learn from failure, rather than seeking to pass the blame down when there is a problem. There is a natural and healthy tension in this. Ultimately you should find that you need to go through a little pain to let someone good go, because the proof they are ready for the next challenge is how effortlessly they handle the current one. The test of a leader is to let go and even ease the move, rather than clinging on because retention of that talent makes their life easier.
The challenge. If a brilliant opportunity emerged for your most capable team member, and they were ready for it, would you let them go? If you could see it brewing, would you help them prepare for it, even if it meant taking a hit?
Knowledge is power to a good leader, but not in the conventionally understood sense. A good leader educates and informs, making sure others know what they know and can do what they do. The power comes from the enhanced capability of the team. They don’t hoard to protect their own position or keep people in the dark so they can roll out their wisdom in front of bosses or customers.
The challenge. When there is a key meeting coming up with an important audience, would you let one of the team give some of the critical info or findings, establishing their credibility, rather than saving the limelight for yourself? If asked a question, would you visibly defer to a team member, even if you knew the answer, to let them demonstrate their knowledge and grow their confidence?
There is a false leadership model which paints a leader as someone with all of the answers, eternally directing; in reality a good leader listens before they speak. They accept the limitations of their own knowledge and the inevitable truth that members of their team will be better at some things than they are, or more aware of the current situation. While accountability and the final decisions rests with them, that does not mean all the options or solutions do. The listening not only taps into the talent of a broader base, but it also fosters a sense that everyone has a role to play.
The challenge. Next time the team are chewing over an issue, and you think you know the answer, can you ask them for their ideas before you give your own? Can you set your ego aside to provide one of them a chance to prove themselves?
Doing each of these a little with your team, over time, will foster trust. The team will become more cohesive and more effective and ultimately that is the leader’s job – not to direct everyone else to success, but to create the environment where the team thrives and makes its own success.
So when that crisis eventually comes, and the eyes all turn to you, you can look right back, because they are about to discover that they already know what to do.
Rufus McNeil is a senior change leader who spent 21 years in the Army, leading operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the complex political environment of Whitehall, before joining the private sector to work with a number of global businesses. He has recently completed a gig as Head of Transformation with DHL Supply Chain.