What is great leadership?

I’ve been asked that question three times already this week. While I know lots of academic answers exist I found myself giving my own very personal view. And it goes something like this:-

Great leaders inspire and motivate average people to deliver above average results. Let’s face it 66% of the population are typical or average. Normal distribution curves tell us that. Every manager wants a team of superstars but that is rarely possible – unless you have unlimited resources.

Great sports coaches can make great teams – even if the individual players aren’t the best. Sheffield United are in the FA cup semi-final for a reason. They’ve had a great leader who has made the best of the talent available. They have undoubtedly over-performed.

Every year we hear about teams who are “too good to be relegated” which tells us that bad leaders can turn good players into bad performers too. They waste talent.

Great leaders care about creating jobs that people want to do in environments people want to be in. That means recognising that organisations are living things – not machines that exist to be infinitely fine-tuned. Bad leaders strive for efficiency at the expense of human happiness and the result is often exactly the opposite of what they intended.

Leadership is about recognising why people come to work and harnessing that passion and energy. Often that’s about releasing rather than increasing control and promoting a coaching rather than management culture.

Great leaders create talent rather than consume it. They realise a key part of their job is to recognise and release potential and ensure that is deployed where the organisation needs it most. They don’t adopt a “me first” headset and try and keep hold of their brightest and best – rather they encourage mobility through the organisation.

They also champion development every day. They take calculated risks that stretch and challenge people – yet never set people up to fail. Above all they confidently hire people they know to be potentially better than themselves – rather than see talented people as a threat.

Great leaders ensure every individual understands their part in achieving the organisations goals. In short they champion alignment. They set people meaningful and SMART objectives that contribute to organisational success rather than just focus on local fixes that make their own life easier.

Leaders break down departmental and professional barriers and get everyone pulling in the same direction. In the process creating a shared vision of what needs doing and how. The result is a clear culture that sets the organisational “moral compass” so people do the right things for the right reasons.

Great leaders don’t fear conflict – they harness it. Two main reasons why organisations die are over-focus on consensus and certainty. Entrepreneurs stop taking risks at their peril. They encourage people to express alternate views and appropriately challenge the status quo. They never allow themselves to fall into the trap of resting on their laurels. Taking a long sojourn in the “room of contentment” allows competitors to react faster and more decisively to changing client and consumer needs.

Finally great leaders realise that their primary currency is trust. Plus ideally a smattering of faith for good measure. Without followers there are no leaders.

People can be told who their manager is but they consciously choose who to follow. It is discretionary. So forget what it says in your job description about power or authority – go out and earn some trust instead.

For me, Barbara Smith the American activist summed it up perfectly: “Trust is to human relationships what faith is to gospel living. It is the beginning place, the foundation upon which more can be built”.

Ian Gooden
Chief Executive

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