Home > The Monday Musings Column > on developing leadership qualities

on developing leadership qualities

I suppose that, to start this blog off, I should define leadership qualities, but they are something that I can know when I see them, but find it very hard to pin down exactly what they are. It is a bit like looking at a painting. What makes a great artist? There are things like composition, brushwork, use of colour and so on, but put something done by a competent amateur alongside a Rembrandt or a Turner or whatever and the difference is obvious even to an uneducated eye like mine.

One my years at work I have seen leadership good, bad and average and would say that most of the leaders that I have encountered were inconsistent. There were some who had one moment where they could have stood with the top ten percent and then never reached those heights again, some who were generally awful, but had the odd moment where they did well and others who were average performers with the occasional moment up or down.

This leads to another question and that is how do you evaluate success as a leader? Results in terms of the way that the teams that they lead have performed is one, but it is not entirely reliable because I have seen badly led teams achieve remarkable results despite the person at the top. Perhaps a more reliable indicator is in the number of people that come through their ranks and go on to achieve good things. Some good leaders may be loved, but some are unloveable despite their abilities. Respect might be another criteria, but are we talking here about respect for their professionalism or as a person? Either could be relevant, but neither is a given.

And so it is hard to pin these things down. Physical presence might be a factor, but now always. Chaerisma is often mentioned, but it does not always make for a good leader even if it does tend to attract followers. Most measures are subjective and they are in the eyes of those who follow or look on. I know what I like as they say, and when I see it I know it.

The problem that I had to face, as do all leaders, is how do you develop others? John Adair maintained that it can be taught and his Action Centred Leadership principles are well established. I agree with that to some degree for I have attended and ACL course back in my early years as a junior manager in a large corporation. It is not a course that I remember fondly because the tutor was somewhat wooden and gave no signs of leadership qualities whatsoever, they worked through the syllabus by rote and I did absorb some of the thinking, but I made my way home thinking that it would have been so much better had it been delivered by someone who demonstrated leadership from the front.

For me trying to teach leadership is a bit like teaching someone to play an instrument. There are many people who can pick up enough of the rudiments to be able to play a recognisable tune, but you they may never get much further than that. The better leaders will benefit from tuition and, as I discussed last week, blending theory with practice is the most effective mix. It depends on the individual though and they have to have something that represents a talent for leadership; some spark that will light their fire.

All leaders have to start somewhere and trying to spot those elusive leadership qualities in someone who is not yet leading is your next challenge. In my most successful years of doing this I used to give people mini projects to deal with, allowing them support, but room to fail and always being prepared to accept the consequences of any such failure. Another opportunity was to have one of the team chair out monthly meeting. It provides an element of pressure in that you are amongst your peers and have your boss down the table too, but you are in a more benevolent environment that you might otherwise be. Seeing how someone manages to control a meeting like that is an opportunity to observe whatever leadership qualities they may have and to see where they might be helped along with advice. (Many of these meetings were videotaped and the results could be observed and dissected at leisure afterwards).

These are slightly artificial pressures, but observing people in the heat of battle is a great opportunity to see how the lead. Are they just watching their own corner or are they looking out for the team? Do they encourage their colleagues or harangue them? A good leader will always be observing and forming judgements, if for no there reason than you want to improve team performance generally, but within that looking for signs of tomorrow’s leaders is important.

What specifically am I looking for then? Mostly it is about subtleties; do they have a feel for when to push and when to back off, are they seeing the different needs of individuals in terms of what motivates them and makes them tick, how do they assess the mood of the team and evaluate the environment in which they are working. Life is dynamic and so change is constant. Having the ability to read that change and be able to adjust the focus of the team accordingly is another leadership skill. Seeing how people think, how they reason things and their decision making process against what is known and what is predicted gives an indication of their potential.

Something else that I will be looking for is whether or not people naturally follow because you cannot lead without followers. Someone with good leadership potential will show that tendency to naturally take charge, but if you put someone in charge of a task will the others accept that leadership or not? There is a difference here between leading and being bossy that you should be able too see.

There is no one size fits all here. List your own top ten leaders and consider them in as dispassionate a detail as you can and you will probably find that there are a range of styles; there may even be ten different ones. You can learn from what you deduce, but do try to develop your own styles for copying someone else is unlikely to work for you. Also don’t be afraid to learn form lessons of poor leadership as there are bound to be a reasonable number of such examples around you.

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