Take me to your leader part 1

What makes a good leader?

Obviously too big a question to answer in one blog, so I’m going to have several goes at this, spread over the next few months. And I’m going to start with a slightly controversial point: not everyone in a leadership position is actually a leader. Some of them are just good at careers, or their face fitted, or they were in the right place at the right time. 

Let me illustrate this point in a slightly over-stated and pretentious way by taking us back nearly 2000 years to the Year of Four Emperors, 69AD. Being Emperor of the Roman Empire was arguably the biggest leadership role going at the time, but of those four we only really remember Vespasian now. Galba, Otho and Vitellius, it turns out, were better at getting the top spot than they were at leading anything. Not leaders, then – just people who had scrambled to the top of the imperial greasy pole. 

Now that’s a rather exaggerated historical example just to kick off the discussion. But of course I’m leaping ahead here, before I’ve sought to define what it is that makes a great leader.

What do leaders do? They lead issues; and they lead people

If we look at current politics, the issues are things like tackling Covid, Brexit, climate change and so on. In a corporate setting, it might be about transforming a company, introducing a new product line, leading an organisation’s resilience during a crisis. 

Leading people is about motivating them, getting them to buy into you and your vision, getting the best outcomes because people believe in you. You can be a good leader in one or other of these disciplines – issues or people – but great leaders combine leadership qualities in both. 

I’ll come back to the ‘leadership of issues’ dimension in future blogs (and I’ve touched on some of this in my previous posts). For now, I just want to talk about leadership of people. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If the basic currency of leading people is the human being, then the leader has, self-evidently, to start with that. Humans need something to motivate them, and they need to feel that there is meaning to their lives. So the leader has to connect with these sensibilities. They have to recognise, and engage with, the humanity of those they are seeking to lead.

That means putting people first. They should be cared for, nurtured, empathised with. In an organisational setting, people like leaders who know something about them – about their family, their recent holiday, their hobbies, their footballing allegiances – and who show an interest in those things; or if they’re a private person, they like leaders who know them well enough to respect that.

In politics, people like leaders with whom they feel they can connect, with whom they could share a drink and talk about their cares and aspirations. They like leaders who (figuratively) speak their language.  They like leaders who they feel are listening to them, and who value their opinions.

That also means that leaders have themselves to be recognisably human. It means finding a natural manner with those they lead – they’ll see through it very quickly if it’s simulated – and if they’re not natural with people, being honest about it. People appreciate honesty. In the workplace, there’s nothing worse than having to try to read your boss all the time. What you see really should be what you get. The leader should be authentic

The good leader needs then to be self-aware – to know how they come across. If it’s not immediately obvious, they need to seek the advice of others. 360 can be helpful, but it’s a one-off snapshot – the good leader of people needs to be checking in on their performance all the time. 

Someone asked me in the thread to an earlier blog what I thought about charisma in leadership. Of course, we all like a bit of charisma in a leader – that’s part of the human connection we make between leader and led – and a leader lacking charisma can be hard going. 

But charisma needs to be underpinned by substance, and by positive intent. Charismatic leaders are often in the narrative-only camp, and don’t bother with the dry details. The drumbeat of history is often the story of charismatic leaders taking their followers and wider society in the wrong direction. We see the danger with today’s demagogues and populists, where their followers adopt a quasi faith position, placing store in everything their leaders say, not in what is true. 

If we see charisma in our leaders, we should never, ever, take it at face value. We should question what they’re really like. If the charisma rests on good motivation, then why not? But if it’s just a veneer, then beware. 

More than charisma, though, we should look for character in our leaders. That means a certain generosity of spirit, an ability to own up to mistakes, a commitment to telling the truth, a capacity to unify rather than divide, and a gaze that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, looks upwards to the stars rather than downwards to the gutter. Words like decency, dignity, humility, integrity and kindness come to mind.

The presence or absence of character in the leaders we follow also says something about ourselves – about the values we hold and the kind of future we want to build.

Perhaps above all other qualities in a leader of people, then, it’s character that matters most. 

Photo by Prashant Gautam on Pexels.com

13 thoughts on “Take me to your leader part 1

  1. Roger, to me, yours is the best way of describing leadership – as in, identifying the ways in which leaders need to perform – and your first (proper) paragraph nails it, for me. You have avoided trying to determine exactly what makes good leaders; I believe you would have had the strong support here of Ralph Stogdill, the late management guru who in 1948 began asking what traits were required in A Leader. He came up with such a long list that he concluded it was impossible to determine the requisite traits; for him, leaders were made (or required) by the situation. Hence, perhaps, Churchill was unassailable as a wartime leader, but rather patchy during his second term in peacetime, and identifying the Iron Curtain (“conflict”) was perhaps his saving grace. My experience of recent years – which may play to your first main paragraph – is that recruiting leaders in an organisation that is culturally rooted in hierarchical values tends to be a dogged quest for potted evidence of pre-determined traits, which results in people who are good at mastering processes getting into leadership roles. And then in practice not always being good leaders. Or even leaders. I agree that character is a critical factor; you mention ‘presence or absence of character’ – I think that word ‘presence’ contains a lot. The best leaders I have worked with are those who feel highly present in all the workings of a team at all levels and in all details. That is not necessarily the same as being visible, but it means being available, interested, endlessly curious, and responsive to everything, as far as humanely possible.

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    1. Thanks, Walter. I’m not familiar with Ralph Stogdill, but will look him up. I kind of agree about the idea of leaders being ‘made’ by the situation, but that rather focuses on crisis (even an extended one like WW2) and suggests that leaders ’emerge’. There’s a different kind of leadership that requires the leader to stick at it for years, through the ups and downs, and keep people buying into them throughout that time. The kind of leader you describe – the one who can manage processes – is an example of the ‘leadership of issues’ dimension. It’s an essential part of the good leader, but not sufficient. As I emphasise in the blog post, the great leader needs also to be able to lead people. And I like your point about presence, which is a slightly different (but good) take on what I intended. You’re right that it’s not about leaning over people’s shoulders all the time, but rather the sense that there is someone there who knows where this whole thing is heading, who can be called on when required and who is always there in the business.

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  2. Roger – Thank you. I’m agreeing with your response largely, but just hesitating a while over your point about the kind of leadership that needs to stick at it over the years – and I’m trying to envisage more everyday examples than Gandhi, Mandela and indeed Churchill, who were figureheads for much of their time. I think Stogdill’s point was that leaders emerge and regress, and that different situations (not just conflict and crisis) call for different leaders and different styles of leadership. Sure, a big corporate organisation needs to build a loose stock of capable senior managers as far as possible with generic management-type leadership skills, but few if any of them will be effective leaders in all situations. If you seek to define a group as The Leaders too rigidly in a corporate situation, you will end up with an organisation that finds it difficult to evolve and adapt. 

    So – and I think this is as much about leadership of People as of Issues –  a good leader in one situation knows when it is time to make way for and empower another leader for another situation – and indeed to allow themselves to be led. And there are of course many different shapes and sizes and flavours of leader.

    I am wondering if ‘Vision’ will have a place in your next leadership post…?

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    1. Thanks, Walter. I’m not disagreeing with you – I think every leader has a ‘best before’ date in a particular role and needs eventually to make way for others with fresh ideas (or to take their own approach into a different setting). You see that in particular in competitive sports, where a particular coach’s ideas are overtaken by someone else, who in turn becomes more successful.

      As to vision, I touched on that a little in the Long Story Short blog, but will no doubt come back to it. My next leadership post, probably in a few weeks’ time, was actually going to touch on competence

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  3. Is good leadership measured by inputs or outputs? The former could almost be prescribed i.e. do x and y in a given context. The latter is more difficult to unpick – are good outcomes always the product of good inputs? Luck and good teams might blur poor leadership (and the converse is true!). Thoughts?

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    1. I think you make a very interesting point, Chesh – thanks. I guess you have to get the input bit right – attitude, training and education, commitment – before you have a chance of getting the outputs right. You’re right that luck and good supporting people can have a role to play, and that indifferent leadership might look better than it has actually been. But equally good leadership might not always lead to a good outcome if the circumstances and context aren’t right. In, for example, military leadership, the outcome can sometimes be clear – a battle was won or lost. In the wider realm of leadership, we may not know whether an initiative has been successful for years to come. Nevertheless, you stand a better chance of getting a good outcome with good leadership than without. Oh, and happier people who’ve been well led!

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  4. Another great blog, Roger. Thanks for taking the time to produce a thoughtful exposition on leadership.

    I think I agree with your basic definition that “Leading people is about motivating them, getting them to buy into you and your vision”. However, I don’t think that to be effective at this, leaders need actually to be nice, or indeed even decent, human beings… to have “decency, dignity, humility, integrity and kindness” as you put it.

    At the risk of being hugely controversial, I am sure we can all think of charismatic characters throughout history who were highly adept at firing the imagination of their followers and inspiring fanatical devotion to their vision.

    For my part, I see leadership having its roots in the personal connection between people. Therefore it as unique, varied, nuanced and changing as any human relationship – for good or ill. What matters most, it seems, is that the leader’s vision becomes instilled as a cherished belief in the follower.

    This is more easily understandable in groups small enough for there to be a one-to-one relationship with the “leader”. However, in larger groups, that relationship is established between the follower and what they *imagine* the leader to be. Any gaps or lapses in the leader’s character can be more easily airbrushed out or explained away in the follower’s mind. People will use mental gymnastics to resolve any cognitive dissonance in order hold on to their cherished belief. We all like to feel we are doing good things and are following a good person. Therefore we assign noble attributes to our leaders, whether they possess them or not.

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    1. Thanks, Laurence. In terms of the qualities of leadership, I’m setting the bar high here! So I agree with your basic premise that leaders are highly likely to be flawed to some degree. In fact, they wouldn’t be human if they weren’t. I also agree with your point about ‘imagining’ what the leader is. I guess it’s a little bit like artists. We expect the human beings who create great works of art to be as beautiful in their nature as the things they’ve produced, but all too often, of course, that’s not the case. Your analysis in the last paragraph is absolutely right, and we see the dangers in that with the followership for demagogues and populists. It doesn’t matter how repugnant the leader, they’ve been idealised to the point where everything they say is both noble and true. I think charisma has a large role to play here, which is why we need to be wary of it.

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  5. I totally agree with this. There’s lots of leaders I admire and look up too, and there’s leaders that I respect, but would never want to be! And I think the difference between those two is definitely character.

    Thanks Roger! Looking forward to the series!

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