By Susy Roberts, Founder and Executive Coach at people development consultancy Hunter Roberts
The best leaders aren’t those who excel in a particular area; you don’t need to be an engineer to run an engineering company, or a fashion designer to run a chain of successful high-street clothing stores. Similarly, you may be the world’s most talented inventor but struggle to get even the most basic business off the ground.
Excelling in a particular area and being a successful leader are two very different things. Luckily, while it will be difficult if not impossible to become an expert in nuclear science if you’re naturally predisposed to creating award-winning oil paintings, there are five essential traits of a leader that can be learned.
As the late American football coach Vince Lombardi said, good leaders are made, not born. Here’s how you can become one:
Ruling with a rod of iron might get short-term results – but after you’ve met your tight deadline, you’ll harbour resentment and disquiet further down the line if the workforce feels exploited, overworked or undervalued. The best leaders are those who use positive encouragement to get the best from their people. If you identify what makes people tick, give them the opportunities to explore their own strengths and focus on what went right instead of what went wrong, people will view you as a guiding light to be followed, not a dark force to cower away from. Even if favouring the stick over the carrot gets you the results you want, it doesn’t make you a good leader – it makes you one-dimensional, unapproachable and unlikely to get the best from your teams.
Great leaders don’t just have to guide their teams in the right direction, they need to be able to encourage others to see their way of thinking even when it may go against their needs. The key here is to be able to see the other person’s point of view so you can understand their position and what they need from negotiations. Bullish behaviour and single-mindedness might win a battle, but it’s much better to avoid conflict altogether. The ability to understand what other people want or need and present them with a solution that works for everyone is one of the most valuable assets of a successful leader.
When it comes to successful leadership, one size does not fit all. Great leaders are chameleons – they understand that a meeting in Japan requires a very different approach to a seminar in the US, just as they know that a board meeting and a staff night out with frontline workers will be two very different ball games. Similarly, switching from a round of intense negotiations on price thanks to a fluctuating currency to overseeing a disciplinary with someone having personal issues requires the ability to think on your feet and adapt to whatever situation is in front of you without giving it a second thought.
Leaders don’t back down at the first hurdle, and they also need to be prepared to take the flak for those who are acting under their direction. When you’re in a leadership position, the buck stops with you – your words and actions drive the ethos of your organisation, so you need to be prepared to stand up for them. A great leader will be open to suggestions and prepared to push for the ideas that they think will work. There is no place at the boardroom table for someone who sulks when something doesn’t go their way.
Knowing your limits
Finally, one of the most important traits of a successful leader is recognising your own limits. There are few – if any – perfect all-rounders. The best leaders have the ability to build high-performance teams who slot seamlessly together, creating one powerhouse working towards a shared goal. Those who insist they know everything and don’t need to learn will stifle not only their own growth, but that of their organisation. Good leaders learn from other people at every level, ensure they are aware of their own shortcomings and appoint others who excel in those areas to fill the gaps.
A great leader never stops learning and constantly seeks to improve themselves and others. That’s what separates the good from the great.