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.
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.