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What Makes a Leader?

Green sign with white writing 'Leadership' against blue sky

We had an interesting conversation at work a while back about what leadership means and how to motivate people. The general consensus was that there wasn’t any one defining quality that defines a good leader, so I thought I would try to put to words what I believe strong leadership is.

I believe that when it comes to leadership the most important factors are probably competence and intent. I think people will forgive shortcomings in competence if the intent is right, but they will only tolerate the right intent for a certain amount of time if you are incompetent. So they are symbiotic. But if you don’t have the right intent – if you are leading for your own personal gain, you can make initial gains but eventually you’ll ‘lose the changing room’ because people will know you’re only doing it for kudos.

Some people believe that a leader needs to appear infallible. I don’t agree. I believe there’s nothing wrong in showing vulnerability. No one likes a know-all.

It’s funny. Many people want to be leaders because they want the title and the prestige. But once you have to take the lead (particularly in a work context) you are responsible for those you lead. In this sense you have a triple threat to navigate: organisational priorities, personal priorities, team priorities (other individuals). In a perfect world, everything you do should tick all those boxes. But this seldom happens. This is where I think ‘intent’ comes in, and similarly where you can be an inspirational leader.

Some people think that you should always put yourself last and there is a strong case for this. But I don’t think it’s necessarily about putting people before you. I think it’s about making the right decision – even if it means you have to put people’s noses out of joint. Leaders gain respect and inspire (I think) when they make the calls that are right and fair, even if it affects the person the call goes against. Granted, you can’t always control what the other person thinks or how they react, but if you are consistent and people can understand the intent, and they believe in the intent / share the same values, they will follow.

One of the keys there is making the right decision. Make a decision. It’s crucial. I find people don’t want to be led by someone who won’t make a call. An ex-boss of mine once said “if you’re always sitting on the fence, all you get is splinters in your arse”.

Simon Sinek talks a lot about leaders making people feel safe (see Leaders Eat Last) and nothing is more inspirational, in my view, then a leader taking fire for you… heavy artillery even. BUT (and it’s a big BUT, I cannot lie), not at the expense of not learning a valuable lesson. Covering someone’s behind is admirable, but as a leader, you need to also educate the person on what they’re doing wrong. To not do this is to, in my book, fail as a leader. Similarly, in keeping with one of my key mantras in life, you can’t defend the indefensible. Just because someone is on your team doesn’t mean you can’t say they’ve done the wrong thing. But own the punishment – don’t throw them under the bus to someone else.

I’ve observed that a lot of leaders are consumed with self-doubt and constantly question their actions and decisions, often questioning if these will adversely affect how their team will view a decision. There are numerous texts out there that will tell you that the best leaders are the ones who agonise over everything and are hardest on themselves. They’re the ones who are the first to accept the blame when things go WRONG but similarly the first to credit others when things are going WELL.

This concept of it being lonely at the top is very real, in my book, and our challenge is in getting past that to say “I may not be perfect, I may make mistakes, but I’m trying the best I can and am learning with every day. If I get it wrong, I’ll own it, learn from it and never make that mistake again.”

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