Much is written about being a good leader. And there have been a few great leaders who are either naturally talented and/or are in the right place at the right moment to exercise their particular brand of leadership – for example, Napoleon Bonaparte, Sir Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These great leaders are interesting to study – and can help to inform the development of your personal leadership skills – as long as you ensure that you are not overwhelmed by their leadership style and/or you are not trying to find some form of quick recipe for leadership.
But there is no one right way of leading and authenticity is crucial to being a good leader. One of the best ways to become a good leader is to develop into the kind of leader that suits your interests, values, circumstances and personality. If you start from this point, you are well on your way to becoming a good leader.
Good leaders generally have an interest in people. To reinforce this point for yourself, it is worth generating a list of words, characteristics and ideas you might associate with good leaders. It would be surprising if your list did not include at least some of the following: strategy; vision; direction; empowering; encouraging of a culture that supports the work of the organisation; a good communicator; a role model; the public face of the organisation; personally credible; courageous; influential; tenacious; energetic; an arbiter; a reference point; an orator; a decision-maker – to name but a few possibilities.
As you think about these words, it becomes clear that many have a people dimension, and this is where good leadership comes into play. Good leadership is inextricably linked to the impact that people make in the workplace. It is about galvanising and unifying activities. You cannot lead inanimate objects like computers, desks or offices – you can only lead people.
In order to better understand your predisposition for leadership, think about a past, one-off work event that you particularly enjoyed. Run through this event in your mind, then write down a few words to describe what you were enjoying. If your example turns out to be primarily concerned with things or processes, rather than when you were leading, or being part of, a successful team, then a leadership role is unlikely to be a natural choice for you.
Being interested in things or processes is not a natural springboard to securing the best possible future through the alignment, commitment and talent of the people within the organisation – although it is not impossible. So if being a technical expert is your thing then that’s great – every workplace needs that expertise too.
If your response to that one-off work event did involve people and teamworking and you are, for example, using phrases like ‘when we…’ or ‘when the team…’, then leadership is likely to be a more natural option for you.
All great leadership requires a balance
If this is the case, then how do you adapt your behaviour, given that no single action or business activity is considered the answer to all problems. Over time, and through growing self-awareness, you will build up your confidence and leadership ability and understand:
• when to speak and when to listen
• when to direct and when to coach
• how to be driven but humble
• how and when to exercise the proverbial ‘iron glove’
• how to be optimistic but pragmatic
• how to be strategic but in touch with people’s current issues
• how to enable business as usual while moving towards a different future?
We all have biases and preferences and the key to being a balanced leader is to ensure that we understand those biases and preferences. Asking other people who know us is often a good place to start, but other options include psychometrics and 360-degree feedback instruments, coaching, development programmes and neurolinguistic programming (NLP).
Accepting this, ‘warts and all’, and appreciating that connecting with people is the key to leadership, and that this can be done in many ways: quietly or more loudly, from in front or from behind, it is then a question of which way is best for you and how you can continue to play to your strengths while taking a balanced approach yourself, and being counter-balanced by others who have skills that may not be natural to you.
Finally, good leaders need to give of themselves. How do you respond to someone who gives little away? Naturally, we tend to match this behaviour and end up having little or no connection with such a person – the opposite of great leadership. If you cannot connect with people, it’s difficult to know how you will influence them to create a successful future.