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Characteristics of leadership

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

In my post last week, I talked a little about the role of a leader in relation to engaging with employees to both communicate the strategy and direction of the organisation, as well as to understand what the individuals own strategy and purpose is. In the coaching and consulting work I’m currently doing, I’m finding myself talking about purpose a lot, but also using some of my leadership ‘muscles’, especially as the people I’m working with don't actually report to me.

As I look back over my career, I recall that a lot of my learnings about how to be an effective leader came from those times when I didn’t manage people directly, but rather had to achieve outcomes through people by engaging them in the right way. That is to say by the use of engagement and influencing, rather than authority and control. This got me thinking more about the role of a leader and what I see as the key characteristics and traits that they should have. These are my own personal views, based on many years of both observing other leaders, as well as seeing what things have worked well for me as a leader. And of course also considering what hasn’t worked as well.

Before I share my thoughts on those characteristics, I feel it’s important to also clarify the difference between a manager and a leader as often this is part of the coaching I do with people as they develop in their career. There has been a lot of research and books written on this topic, with my favourite one being What Leaders Really Do by John Kotter. It is a little dry to read at times (apologies John), but if you want to read a book that explores this topic in depth, I highly recommend it. Below is one of the quotes from the book that talks about leaders, which I really love and resonates so well with me.

They don’t make plans; they don’t solve problems; they don’t even organize people. What leaders really do is prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it – John P. Kotter

When I coach people who are on their journey through management into leadership, I use another simple view on the above. Managers operate downwards and inwards, Leaders operate upwards and outwards. Just to be clear, that for me isn’t that negative perspective or people ‘managing up’, but rather it’s about leaders empowering people by setting the scene/context and then supporting people in achieving that. Something an old colleague of mine from BBC Worldwide used to always talk say that ,as a leader, know when to stand in front of someone, when to stand beside them and when to stand behind them. The key to this being that always that positioning decision is based on how to best support the staff member, so not looking at it from the leaders perspective.

Now to bring this back to the opening topic, what do I see as the characteristics of good leadership, based on my experience;

- Genuine – I use this word instead of authentic, as I think that word can often be overused and sometimes trigger a cynical response. In simple terms being Genuine is about being you. If people met you in a pub or observed you hanging out with friends, the person they say wouldn’t be dramatically different to you as a leader. At least behaviourally.

- Respectful – Full transparency, this one is driven by my upbringing and core values, but still believe it’s relevant. It’s about how a leader treats people, even when they have to be challenging or critical. They do it from a position of respect to the individual and helping them move forward.

- Accountable – A bit of a pet peeve of mine as I don’t see this as much as I’d like to, but a leader shouldn’t be afraid to be accountable. Now that’s not about always shouldering blame or falling on their sword, but it’s about taking ownership and moving things forward, not sitting back and looking for someone to blame.

- Resilient – It’s lonely at the top, is a phrase you’ll often hear and it’s true. The more you progress in leadership, the more responsibility you have and less people around you to help share that burden. To some this is about having thick skin, but that doesn't resonate with me. For me it’s about being able to roll with the punches, adapt to situations and when required, continue to push forward in the face of resistance.

- Approachable – This one is so important for me and ties a little with being genuine. A leader needs to set a tone of approachability, helping people feel comfortable in their presence and that their engagement is wanted and valued. This comes from taking actions, which I know as a leader can be hard to clearly demonstrate and encourage. Saying you have an open door policy is not enough, you need to create those opportunities with people. Everything from a simple ‘hello, how you doing?’ when standing in the coffee queue as when you see people in the elevator, through to creating forums where staff can come and interact with you and feel comfortable doing so.

At the end of the day, only you know the type of leader that you want to be, which is more important than being the leader that an organisation wants you to be. Hopefully the two will align, because if they don’t, then you’re not being genuine. I’ve fallen foul to this once in my career and learnt a hard lesson from it.

I encourage you think about leaders you admire, what are some of the traits that resonated well with you? What are the negative traits that you’ve seen and don’t want to repeat? The more we can learn from our experiences, while being ourselves, the better we all can be.

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