Many articles, speeches and studies have been dedicated to understanding leadership. Countless courses and hours have been spent trying to hone the skills of leaders in the workplace, but what is a leader and importantly the much vaunted “Good Leader“? I could discuss Machiavelli’s, The Prince, which sets out how a leader was not only to gain power but also how to entrench that power in a complex political, socio-economic context. In parallel observations about my previous experience in the Prime Minister’s Office (Barbados) I wrote that: “[Politics] was not only simply the ability to get your way. It was the ability to finesse arguments, as part of a democratic process, to acquire power to maintain that way. There was no point in winning for today but losing for tomorrow.” I could also discuss Sun Tzu’s, The Art of War that sets out how a leader won battles. I could define leadership, such as, as the ability to make decisions and inspire others to execute their job. I could discuss the characteristics of model leaders such as charisma, humility, decisiveness, openness and my shopping list of what a good leader is could go on and on. Perhaps the best place to start is therefore to say that there is no ideal leader or ideal manual on leadership. Does that mean we settle for less from our leaders or from ourselves when we are set in a position of leadership? Or that we do not discuss or write about leadership? Of course not!
We are all leaders in different contexts and many of us do it daily without stopping to reflect on what works and what does not work. In writing this brief article I have had to stop and reflect on my experience of leading and from interacting with others who were my leaders. From my experience in politics, academia, and the legal sector, I think that three of the more attractive qualities of the leaders I encountered were: (1) genuine openness to challenge and new ideas, (2) acceptance of not only the triumphs of the team but also the failures of the team and (3) the ability to show compassion and empathy. These could be useful in any context; whether in leading the small start-up, the more established medium-sized business, the large company or social enterprise. I will examine each quality briefly.
- Genuine openness to challenge and new ideas. Successful leaders can spot and promote talent, because in doing so, whether they realised or not, they accepted that they did not have a monopoly on ideas. A leader will ensure that they provide room for members of the team to develop ideas and grow on a personal and professional level. Team members should not sit around waiting on the leader to come up with new initiatives. The team should be coming to the leader with ideas and ways to improve the business or achieve the aims of the project. A leader must to be confident in their views and about themselves, not to feel someone with an idea is a threat to their position. The leader therefore nurtures talent through not only mentoring, but also positive action to support the person. It is easy to have weekly or monthly mentorship sessions, the next step of the leader is action through supporting that team member, if relevant for a promotion or recognition. The leader may have to stick their head above the precipice. Could it go wrong? Could the leader’s choice backfire? Yes! There is always a possibility, small as it may be, that things will not go as planned. However, that is part of the role of leader and brings me to the next point about failing.
- Acceptance of not only the triumphs of the team but also the failures of the team. It is easy to celebrate in the win of the team. A trait of the good leader, which I saw being exhibited, was the leader who could accept mistakes, own the mistakes of the team, and also own their mistakes. In doing this, the leader recognises that they are not perfect and also sometimes things will not go according to plan. The best approach is to fix the problem, learn from it and move on. A leader could play the blame game but that will get them no closer to the goals of the business or project. In fact it distances the leader further away from the goal. I recall the story of my manager who on realising that I had made a mistake on a project, came into my office and we figured out how we could fix the mistake. My manager then told me that “everyone messes up at some point. The thing is never to dwell on it or make the same mistake twice.” It showed me a few important lessons that I still carry with me. Sometimes, a leader must be prepared to go to their team. The other lesson for me from my experience was that a leader acknowledges their own mistakes. A leader has to be careful not to demoralise members of the team when mistakes are made, which ties to the next point about compassion and empathy.
- The ability to show compassion and empathy. A leader must be aware of what is happening with their team at work and to some degree at home. Issues tend to move between the two worlds. A team member struggling to take care of a sick relative or a single parent with no after school care can affect performance at work. A leader must be bold enough to make exceptions and be clear in explaining what those exceptions entail. Sticking rigidly to a certain rule could lose a leader valuable talent. It goes against what the team member needs which is support and someone to show they ‘get it’. A leader should therefore make the appropriate allowances for team members to perform at their best.
In my career so far, having witnessed different leaders, I think that the successful leaders generally embodied and exhibited to varying degrees the three qualities discussed above. Overall, they also shared a common character feature; the pursuit of excellence through hard work.