What makes someone a good leader?
In my first article (Why leadership and management matter) I argued that leadership and management were equally important (but different) in getting the best out of people. I described managers as relying on positional power, the legitimate authority that comes from their role in the organisation, and leaders as relying on personal power, the power that comes from the set of personal qualities that causes people to choose to follow them. In this article I want to explore what those qualities are and why they are important. Subsequent articles will explore some of these in more detail and look at what you can do to develop them further, to be a more effective leader.
My starting point is to be absolutely clear that being appointed to a managerial role doesn’t make you a leader, and that many leaders have no managerial responsibility at all. What makes someone a leader is that others are prepared to follow them – accept their judgement, work to achieve goals that they have proposed and look to them for guidance when making decisions. The most effective leaders are able to get more out of people than they would normally give, or even be aware that they could give. They see what people are capable of, persuade them of their potential and inspire them to achieve that vision.
By contrast, many managers struggle to get people to do the minimum that they are contracted to do and, in the worst cases, resort to coercion – applying illegitimate pressure or bullying – to get people to do what they want.
Throughout the education and training system we see people who take on leadership roles without being managers, such as subject leaders or healthy eating champions, just as there are some (hopefully not too many) people appointed to management roles who lack any leadership ability. There are some people who seem to emerge as leaders quite naturally, but others can become effective leaders if they work on it. So what are the qualities that make someone an effective leader?
Although seen as a rather old-fashioned concept, leadership research has started to return to character as a concept simply because it is something that many followers cite as critical for effective leadership. When deconstructed, character tends to combine qualities viewed by psychologists as being aspects of personality with what moral philosophers would view as someone’s values, attitudes and beliefs. There is no one personality type that determines who can and who can’t be a leader although, as I suggest below, extreme personality traits may well present a barrier to effectiveness. However, clarity about your values, attitudes and beliefs is critical.
Personality is defined along five dimensions (according to the most widely accepted model, the Five Factor Theory of personality), each of which is independent of the others. However, people are distributed normally across each dimension, which means that most of us are grouped around the mean, so the differences between most of us aren’t that large. Nevertheless, it still enables us all to be identifiably different – personality is ultimately who we are.
Having said that, the (relatively few) people who are extreme outliers on each dimension can be hard to cope with. Dilettantes, who flit from one thing to another, are as hard to cope with as obsessives, who have only one interest in their lives. The starter who never completes is no easier to work with than the person who will not even consider something else until this one task is completed. The extrovert who wants to be friends with everyone can soon jar, and the introvert who hides in the corner never gets noticed. Chameleons, who adopt whatever viewpoint those they are with espouse, are soon seen as lacking real values, but the person who respects no other values but their own is seen as far too dogmatic. Being overly resilient can mean you don’t realise how much others may be affected by negative events, but being too sensitive can mean you get beaten down by the slightest adverse event.
None of these extreme qualities prevents someone from being an effective leader but they probably don’t help to build the trust and confidence that an effective leader needs. It may help someone to have one strong (but not extreme) personality trait, in creating a distinctive identity that followers may value, but many leaders are similar to the majority on all five dimensions. There is no distinctive personality type in defining an effective leader. What there is, however, is someone who recognises that people vary and don’t expect others to be like them. They acknowledge individual differences and allow for them. They seek to make the best of their own and others’ strengths and compensate for any weaknesses.
Values, attitudes and beliefs
Where effective leaders do stand out is in the clarity of their values, attitudes and beliefs. Values are the criteria we use for making moral judgements; attitudes are the perspective we have on the world; and beliefs are the set of principles that underpin both. One of the weaknesses of people who are at the extreme of agreeableness is that they seem to have no values, beliefs or attitudes of their own. They simply adopt those of the people they are with. It’s hard to believe in someone who seems to lack any moral depth, which is what this extreme agreeableness seems to imply. We respect those who believe in something (which doesn’t have to be a religious belief) and who are able and willing to make ethical judgements (about right and wrong). However, if someone is so dogmatic that they cannot accept that others have a different perspective, then they are seen as intolerant.
Leaders must have values to make judgements, especially difficult ones. They need to have a coherent set of beliefs and attitudes to ensure some consistency in their judgements, so that others know what they are likely to say in a particular situation. That doesn’t mean that they are not open to debate; they must be willing to listen to others’ points of view and acknowledge their legitimacy (if they are legitimate). They must be open to persuasion, but only where this doesn’t mean that they compromise their most significant values.
One characteristic of people who live by a clear set of values is that they act with integrity. Their behaviour consistently reflects the beliefs and values they espouse, even when this makes life harder than it might otherwise be. Integrity is one of the three cornerstones of leadership trust (along with competence and benevolence). Suffice to say, leaders who don’t behave with integrity aren’t trusted, and people without a clear set of values, attitudes and beliefs are less likely to be seen to have integrity.
In my time at the Institute of Leadership & Management and now, working with the Professional Development Centre, we have used the concept of ‘Being’ to encapsulate these personal qualities. Our emphasis has been less on an ‘ideal type’ that people should aspire to and more about being self-aware. Know who you are and why you think and behave the way you do. It’s only through knowing yourself that you can understand others. As well as making it easier to build strong relationships with those you lead, by understanding them and what makes them tick, understanding yourself makes it easier to question your actions and review their likely effectiveness.
So much of what we do is reactive – we respond to people and situations the way we have always done. Leaders must learn to be reflective and ask what is likely to be the best way to respond. By knowing their own personal qualities they will recognise that what seems to them to be the obvious reaction is actually the reaction that they feel most comfortable with, not necessarily the one most likely to bring about the best solution. Leaders are willing to step outside their comfort zone and behave in ways that are personally challenging. If a leader is to bring about real change in their organisations they often have to start with themselves.
‘If you always do what you have always done you will always get what you have always had.’
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David Pardey (davidpardey.com) has been working in the education and training system for nearly forty years. He has researched, written and taught about leadership and management extensively in the UK and internationally. His current focus is on what leaders and managers can learn from neuroscience about how we interact with the world and how that shapes our attitudes and behaviour.