The primal need for leadership has never been greater than it is today. The world is going through a period of flux and crisis; old paradigms are being challenged and our society is being stress tested in a way many of us have never (fortunately) experienced. I have no doubt we will emerge from this current pandemic with a much needed reset on how we live and, equally importantly, with new set of lenses on the world we live in. The old way of operating (e.g. our precious health services, supply chain services etc.) will deservedly be improved, if not transformed, through better ways of doing things and now recognising the fragility of some of our key systems. Let’s not sugar coat this; right now to get through this storm and deliver the much-needed reboot, effective leadership is needed. We all need faith that some of us can and will step up to the mark in the coming weeks and months, saying “I’ve got this; just follow me.” So to ask the fabled question found in numerous MBAs and military trainings, what exactly is leadership and how can we find it in ourselves to lead when needed?
When we think of those famed for leadership, the usual names trip off the tongue: Churchill, Eisenhower, de Gaulle, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Joan of Arc. Going beyond politics and the military, the next wave incudes: Marie Curie, Einstein, Bill Gates, Mother Theresa. Quite an eclectic bunch but with one common trait – they knew what they were trying to achieve and did not falter, even when failure was constant. Now let’s think nearer to home – the local head teacher, a hospice director, a volunteer group leader. Whatever the level, those that succeed at being good leaders often succeed in what they want to achieve. Numerous courses talk about the hard and soft skills of leadership. HR competency frameworks espouse skills and experience needed to make that next step on the promotion ladder. However, leadership characteristics are not just relevant to the usual suspects such as business and governments. Although essential in these fields, leadership acumen is much more widely applicable than that. So, what is the magical cocktail?
Someone I worked for in the corporate world once described leadership to me as “someone who gets and holds the bigger picture but can swoop down like a hawk into the detail when needed.” I think this remains a wonderful overarching statement. It also explains why numerous corporates have struggled over the years when facing bankruptcy or issues around malpractice. The perennial question is always “how could the management not have known?”. The answer lies right there; they were managing, using data fed to them and perhaps not taking time or recognising the need to dive into areas because they had left the detail and low-level issues to someone else. I’m not suggesting for a minute that a CIO or CFO can be overly involved in every part of their operation. I’m merely pointing out that a good leader who knows the operation will do two things: be able to sense where he/she needs to pay more attention and secondly have a trusted team that he/she can delegate to but who will also call things out when needed.
This leads to a second key attribute of an effective leader – they can’t operate in isolation. Whether a corporate, a church or a local education establishment, leaders must gain the trust and (sometimes reticent) support of others, be they team members or wider sets of stakeholders. People may not always agree with what they suggest but, if they trust them, they will follow. Equally, if they lead by having a team of people, they need to delegate and have a trusted council around them to cascade ownership and responsibility.
A good leader must have a clear view of what they want to achieve, owning and breathing the strategy for this. Moreover, failures are just strategic moments, allowing them to take stock, learn and try again. Many successful leaders have as many failures as successes; it has been a key to their success! Think of the numerous sports captains in rugby and football who have become recognised leaders for their teams. They all quote failure as being their biggest asset to hone their leadership approach and re-affirm their goals. They are unwavering in their focus and remain passionate about their goals, even if the locus of travel needs to change. Examples include: Sam Warburton leading two successful Lions tours back to back; Clive Woodward in the run to the 2003 World Cup and Alex Ferguson who needs no introduction.
A more topical characteristic lies in the often challenging need to balance being collegiate and directive. I once attended a course on negotiation and influencing (the key tenets of which I still use today!). We did a group exercise, video camera rolling and watched by the trainers. At the end in group feedback, the lead trainer and senior Vice President pointed at me and said “you were the natural leader in that group; why did you not lead?” That bullet of a question has haunted me ever since. Why didn’t I lead when I had done it so many times
before? The answer is simple. I felt I was “taking over” this group of high-achieving business people and did not want to steal the limelight! It was a watershed for me. It also demonstrates another key tenet of a good leader – there are times where you need to forget being the team player or worry about what people may think of you and start being the person the team follows. For some of us, this means letting go of “what will they think of me? Do they think I’m bossing them about?”. Leadership means being single-minded at times and driving for the end goal and not team bonding. Yes, the style with which you do it is paramount but, if you build up team rapport and trust, people may grumble or indeed question (as they should) but they will follow and support.
One area of leadership that is hard to teach is the fine balance between using information and going with gut instinct. This quality more than any other distinguishes good leaders from truly exceptional ones. Today, we are constantly bombarded with data. Companies run on data; human beings in their everyday lives run on data. The more they have, the more they feel they can make decisions (or have a valid excuse for not making them!). The term “lies, damn lies and statistics” has never been more pertinent in our everyday lives (and I say that as a mathematician with a Masters in statistics). A successful leader is able to draw in the information they need (rather than wade through the swamp) but use it as one tool and not the final answer. There are many anecdotes through time of those who went against the evidence- laden view and made a decision that was as much instinct (through faith in their own experience and skill) as anything else. Others would have regarded them as foolish, cavalier or even selfish. However, fast forward to their subsequent success and they are revered for this very trait. Examples include: Nelson’s risk-laden strategy at Trafalgar and Mandela when he supported the much-maligned Springbok rugby team at the 1995 World Cup.
A final point around traditional leadership is standing alone. A true leader is the apex. Accountability is second nature to them. How many Board meetings have we sat in where the collective group is unable or unwilling to decide, due to mixed views or a lack of accountability in the room. When arbitration is needed, a true leader will always be happy to make the final call. They are willing to be that apex of decision making (e.g. as meeting chair or as the one with the ultimate accountability). Lack of decision making (especially in operational, quick moving environments) is as problematic as a bad decision. Being that apex is part of a leader’s DNA. It can be a lonely place at times but it is pivotal to success.
There is a final group of people I would like to mention – it’s all of you and the premise that we can all lead in our lives. More than ever, this is an altruistic time, a battle cry to humankind to step up to the plate and lead. “I’m not a leader”, I hear you say. Well, I’m here to shatter that belief and tell you that you can be. You don’t need to be a company CEO, Chief Superintendent of Police, head of a local religious community or indeed Prime Minister to lead. At any point in your day-to-day life and especially in these unique times, you can lead others. Whether at home, work or getting your supplies from the supermarket, you can make a choice to lead by example. Whether selecting your provisions or teaching your children, you are leading, showing others a way forward. If you choose volunteer work or putting cans in a food bank, you lead the way for others. In short, we all have a role in life where we can lead and do so with integrity, courage and a sense of purpose.
So when we finally come out the other side of this (and we will), think again on leadership in your life. Think wider than the hierarchical organisation chart. Think of the people around you and how you can lead them sometimes. This is not simply an HR requirement to find and grow future leaders but a human-to-human necessity at times like this. In short, leadership does not need to only be something offered to you as part of a role or job description; leadership is also an everyday choice that you can make. Whether you want to lead a small start up, become a CEO or lead your close friends by setting an example, leadership is about you. It is an art, not a science, taking the traits above and blending these with your own style. The result will be worth it and most welcome.