What qualities define a good leader? In uncertain and volatile times, it’s a more relevant question than ever. Businesses need strong leaders to navigate through the challenges that confront them, staff look to leaders to provide clarity and direction, while stakeholders and investors want the reassurance that an organisation is in confident and capable hands.
It’s also a question that has been particularly prominent in a political context over the last several months here in the UK. I have discussed qualities of leadership several times in my monthly blogs, but it feels timely to turn to it again now.
The collective good
Many qualities are indispensable – clear thinking, the ability to communicate effectively and inspire people, determination, empathy, judgement – but one thing really stands out when thinking about recent events. That’s the fact that a great leader, whether in public or private life, must be focused on serving a greater end than their own personal agenda. Leaders lead – but they also serve. What will truly bring people along with a leader is the recognition that they are committed to delivering for the public or collective benefit and have a clear vision of what that means.
That vision then needs to be backed up by a supporting strategy and concrete plans to deliver on it. A good leader will test these plans with others and gather feedback. They will talk to stakeholders – inside and outside the business – with the detail needed for an informed discussion.
Where there is pushback or challenge, a good leader will take stock of the points being made and will not be afraid to adjust their plans if warranted. We often see negative headlines around “U-turns” in different contexts – but course correction is not intrinsically a bad thing. It shows a leader is listening and can in fact be a positive.
But good leaders will also defend their position if they need to. If they genuinely believe that a course of action is right, and if they have objectively considered challenges to it and still believe that to be so, they will be prepared to make the case and stand their ground.
It’s a mixture that’s needed, therefore: strength and confidence, but also openness and humility. While all the time remaining absolutely focused on the end-vision, which must be in the interests of the organisation as a whole rather than serving a personal agenda.
The importance of ‘team’
There is another key factor at play, that is often overlooked. Any leader depends on the people around them. They need engagement, support and constructive challenge. In times of crisis, leaders need their teams to be fully involved and contributing. Everyone has a responsibility towards achieving goals. It’s when apathy or indifference spreads that you know a leader has effectively lost their mandate and command.
That’s why good leaders also ensure that there are avenues and channels open to their management teams and staff more widely to have their voice heard and stay engaged. They will actively listen and respond. Genuine two-way communication is key and this is about dialogue not monologue.
Ultimately, it’s about building and maintaining a sense of team, where everyone is working towards and contributing to a collective vision in the common interest. In politics, that means the public interest. In business, that means the interests of staff, customers, communities and wider stakeholders and investors.
Good leadership is hard. But it’s something that everyone with management responsibilities should continually work at. Because how you’re set at the top influences everything else that follows – it’s a privilege and that brings responsibilities, ownership, and accountability.