Here’s my second look at the question of what makes a great leader.
Previously, I focused on a leader’s personal qualities. I argued in favour of character, and subsequently I realised that some of the qualities I listed set the bar quite high. Some readers’ comments suggested that good leaders might also be flawed personalities, and I accept that. This isn’t about perfection – an aiming point about which I harbour grave suspicions – but rather about being better than the, well, not very good.
That blog post was about leading people. I want here to turn to the question of leading issues. Taking a project, a policy, an idea, and turning it into a reality.
To achieve that, my contention is that the great leader has to be a time traveller. No, not literally – I haven’t suddenly gone all HG Wells, or maybe even Charles Dickens. Rather, I’m talking about a frame of mind that enables the leader both to develop a deep understanding of the past, and what we can learn from it, as well as being able to project their thinking into the future, and into what an idea feels like once it’s been realised.
Let’s just think about the past for a moment.
The effective leader has probably accumulated a certain amount of experience which gives them an intuitive feeling for what worked, and what didn’t work, over time. Of course, there might be exceptions: Alexander the Great, for example, had conquered a significant proportion of the known world, and left a lasting legacy, by the time of his death at the age of 33. But there are few Alexanders in history, and (understatement) it’s a problematic example to translate wholesale into the modern corporate or political setting.
Routinely, careers are probably best thought of as means of accumulating and learning from experience, and consequently doing better (much better this than imagining them as a kind of race in which one career triumphs over others). The effective leader doesn’t just rely on their own career experience, however, but constantly learns from that of others. Their time travel into the past goes beyond a dry reading of events and on into the richness of the multiplicity of factors which make things happen, or which prevent them from happening. This learning then becomes the foundation for future action.
The time travelling leader, though, is careful not to let experience act as a drag anchor. Just because something was done in a certain way before doesn’t mean it has to be done that way in the future. It’s important to know your history, but not to live in it.
This is where the other kind of time travel is essential – the leap into the future. The good leader is able to visualise where an idea is heading, often some years (in some cases, maybe decades) out. And they don’t just project their thinking into the future. In their mind’s eye, they can almost touch it, see it in 3-D, be there.
All of that is necessary, but not sufficient. Anyone can have a big idea, but it’s in the nature of human affairs that achieving it will be complex and challenging. There are any number of reasons why not to do something, and plenty of people ready to block progress. The good leader, then, has to go beyond the vision, and have a strategy – and ideally a detailed plan – with which to deliver it.
It doesn’t mean they have to be the strategy-maker or the planner themselves, but it does mean they need access to people with the skills to flesh out the path to achieving the idea – people who can do so realistically, with a comprehensive understanding of the resource factors and the critical paths that need to be traversed. A leader presenting a vision without a fully worked through way of getting there is relying on luck, and that is almost never enough.
There’s a feedback loop into the other kind of leadership here – leadership of people. The leader’s effective use of experience is the foundation for the trust their people have in them. The leader’s vision into the future is a primary means of motivating them. It’s the narrative into which they buy.
That narrative needs therefore to be developed with a sense of responsibility – towards those who are going to follow, and towards those who are going to be affected – and it needs to be communicated with clarity and honesty. Against those benchmarks, I leave you to judge where ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ stands in comparison with the promise of an ‘oven ready deal’.
The time travelling leader knows the past, acts in the present and projects into the future. They do so to make the future. They shape and mould it, and enlist others to help them do so. Ideally, they do so with positive or benign intent, and the future they create reflects that.
In contrast, the malign or incompetent time-travelling leader can lead to a sub-optimal future. It’s no exaggeration to say that the very fabric of history is the inter-weaving of malign/incompetent and benign/competent leadership visions.
The leaders who take us on their path don’t just emerge. We make them. We facilitate their path to the top, sometimes by helping to prepare them for what is to come, sometimes just through forbearance of their leadership ambition. The future they have in mind, then, is one that we’ve already helped create.
That’s why, as we step into the time machine the leader confidently helms, we should always take a second look at the ticket, and ask ourselves whether that’s where we really want to go.