I’ve been meaning for some time to take the three blogs on leadership I did a while ago and put them together into one longer blog addressing the question, what makes a good leader? So here it is.
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.
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.
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.
Many good leaders might though be flawed personalities. 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.
What, then, about 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 competition 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. As I have become prone to repeating, 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 think we can turn the tide in the next 12 weeks’ stands in comparison with ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’.
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. That drumbeat of history I mentioned before: it’s also shaped by 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.
So how do we recognise the great leader when we encounter them? How do leaders know whether they’re succeeding?
There is one clear-cut metric: are they any good?
As I said at the beginning, not everyone in a leadership position is actually a leader. There are people who’ve been swept to the top on the tide of a career. Reassuringly, of course, there are also many examples of people who are round leadership pegs in round leadership holes.
Asking the question ‘are they any good?’ is obviously more likely to get a thumbs up for the latter than the former. But of course there’s more to it than that.
You might get a ‘yes’ in terms of delivery, but a ‘no’ for how they lead people. The extreme version is the bully, sometimes (wrongly) tolerated because they produce the goods even as they alienate most of their people. Whatever they’re achieving leaves a trail of destruction, with likely long-term impact. Nevertheless, the emphasis on delivery is one explanation for why so much bullying continues to exist in organisations despite everyone knowing how counterproductive it is.
Conversely, the ‘are they any good?’ question might get a ‘yes’ for people leadership, and a ‘no’ for delivery. The leader could be hugely empathetic, pleasant to deal with, motivating – but not particularly good at getting things done. For such a leader survival depends on having a talented, well-motivated team working for them, but that’s problematic if that team finds their leader to be a decisional bottleneck.
The great leader is of course getting a ‘yes’ to the ‘are they any good?’ question because they get a ‘yes’ on both people leadership and delivery.
Still hard to measure, though. You can just know, but instincts can sometimes mislead, particularly without the benefit of hindsight. This is particularly risky for those looking down the chain and deciding who to promote. There’s the ‘good chap’ syndrome, where people who smile upwards get promoted and thereby drive the Peter Principle: the promotion of people to their ‘level of incompetence’. (The sexist nature of that term – ‘good chap’ – isn’t an accident, by the way, in a society where men still predominate in leadership roles).
I think there’s a simple test by which to measure the effectiveness of leaders: what will people be saying about them in five years’ time? What will their reputation be, and how will it have survived the test of time? Reputation can be plotted on a notional graph in which the axes are leadership of people and of delivery respectively.
The coordinates on this graph reflect leaders’ personal and professional qualities. Were they effective? What kind of legacy did they leave? Did they change things for the better? Were they a flash in the pan, or is the effect still felt? Was it good to work for them? Did they inspire their people? Did they learn from them? Did the leader help their people become more effective leaders themselves?
The great leader is going to be characterised by words like ‘inspirational’ by those who know them. Likely not by the term ‘careerist’ – someone whose focus on the greasy pole, like our short-lived Roman Emperors, makes it unlikely they’ll be a great leader.
Much better for a career to be a succession of opportunities to offer skills at the next level, for the greater good. There’s more chance of abrogating the Peter Principle that way. Of course everyone wants a bit more money and maybe status, and there’s no harm in a bit of ambition, but being sufficiently self-aware to assess how your ability matches your position is a great asset for the developing leader.
You could argue that this metric – assessing someone’s reputation in the future – is of less use in the here and now, but you can observe a leader in action today and project what their future reputation might be. It’s another version of time travel. And for leaders themselves, thinking about their future reputation should shape how they behave and perform – how they iron out the shortcomings and bolster the strengths.
I’m not saying any of this is easy. Some people in leadership positions put up a smokescreen, a projection of confidence when the real issue is competence. That’s why it’s so important to see beyond how individuals present, and into what they actually do.
Finally, let’s move from theory into practice, and transport ourselves back into the real world of leadership for a moment.
In organisations, it is of course as complicated as the number that exist. Many have good leadership cultures, many not. Those that actively engage with the issue are much more likely to succeed. Those that don’t are likely already to have poor leadership, and to replicate the failing.
Over in the political sphere, everyone has an opinion on whether a particular leadership cadre has been effective or not. Reaching a conclusion requires us to set aside political leanings and assess the hard data. We should look beyond the day-to-day tidal wave of reporting and commentary, and ask ourselves whether we’re well-served by political leaders of character, who are effective in getting things done (in the interests of the people they serve), and whose reputation will stand the test of time.
And if the answer to these questions is ‘no’, then we should look to build a leadership cadre for the future for whom the answer is, instead, a resounding ‘yes’.