What Makes a Great Leader?

by | Sep 25, 2014

Armies, governments, rock bands, sports teams – even knitting groups – all need leaders. So there should be no surprise that businesses that have no clear leader, or no effective leadership, suffer from more than simply poor performance.

This would be the perfect spot for a dictionary definition of ‘leader’ or ‘leadership’. But instead, the following are a few anecdotal examples of how leadership (or the lack of it) has suggested itself to me over many years of working in, and with, different organisations.

One Message: the best leaders I’ve worked with are able to express the organisation’s goals and values in a simple and logical manner. They do this whether they are speaking to a major shareholder or the forklift driver. They convey it in words that are entirely their own (they do not use trite sound bites from published ‘gurus’), and the good ones avoid cliché while they’re at it.

Visibility and accessibility: it may seem an obvious one, but it’s often overlooked. I once worked with a company that had recently appointed a new Managing Director from within existing management, a development that was welcomed by staff. The previous incumbent had been remote, partly located in another country, and was infrequently available. The newly promoted leader’s office was conveniently located next to the main management team’s desks, in a glass-walled room with helpful line-of-sight with his colleagues. What was the first thing he did? Installed vertical blinds on his office’s transparent walls, closing them immediately and permanently. Not only was he sending a ‘Leave Me Alone’ signal (and Management acceded to this request, to the detriment of the company), but suddenly it looked as though someone had built a private Wendy House in the middle of what had been a viable open-plan area. A bad start.

First 100 Days: typically used in relation to the first 100 days of a first term presidency of the United States, this has become a standard first period by which a new leader is measured. The phrase was first used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and is still used to measure the successes and achievements of a president during the period that their power and influence are at their greatest. Whether they have ever heard this phrase or not, newly appointed leaders instinctively understand its importance, and ensure both their actions, and visible symbolism around them, are understood by all.

Deeds, not Words: I’m fortunate to spend so much time with different managers in very different organisations, across all sorts of fields. Some of them are fortunate to be good communicators at both a one-to-one and a group level. But the leaders that make the biggest impact, and at the very least earn the respect of colleagues and employees, are the ones that understand that their actions are far more important than what they say. There is no actionable example to follow in even the finest oration, but people will always see, and can easily follow, deeds and behaviour. The simple things: time-keeping, cost management, being ‘on top of the brief’ in terms of facts, well-run meetings – leaders can not escape the fact that they will be judged by their visible performance. And if they come up short of expectations, they can be certain that whatever deficiency they display is suddenly acceptable behaviour for everyone else. Parents have understood this simple fact for generations, but business managers often believe this ancient wisdom can be ignored in a commercial organisation. Time to go back to the Wendy House and submit to some rigorous self-appraisal.

Recent Posts

Balancing Authority and Responsibility in Delegation

Balancing authority and responsibility is the key to empowering teams and achieving organizational goals through effective delegation. This article explores how leaders can unlock employee potential by strategically transferring authority and sharing responsibility.

read more