Ten behaviours of great leaders

Tim Akerman
Categories:   Leadership  

Leadership. There are so many blog posts and articles about it, everyone has an opinion. It is a vital part of any organisation or endeavour, some say you are born with it, others that you can develop it, but what is it?

This is my view of leadership, it is taken from personal experience and from a lot of reading around the subject. The meaning of leadership seems to depend who you listen to. some people believe in charismatic leaders, others want to follow popular leaders, the problems seems to be that leadership means different things to different people. This is where I believe the heart of the problem lies in defining leadership. Often the most charismatic leaders are the ones that companies appoint, particularly when they are in trouble. These are the leaders who tell the best story and show the future in brilliant illustration, however all too often their first step is to uncover a whole range of “problems” left by the previous incumbent. this creates a hole in the business as it becomes necessary to repair the damage done by the previous leader before they can drive forward with their vision. They then work diligently to implement their vision for the business and often succeed in rebuilding the business and setting off in the direction they believe is appropriate for the business.

Leaders come in many shapes and sizes and with many different skill sets, and it is undoubtedly a difficult job to find the best leader for the business. One of the problems I perceive in businesses is the search for a “magic bullet” solution. Nowhere is this more evident than in football management. The team underperforms, the manager comes under pressure and eventually is sacked. A new manager comes in and changes the players, changes the tactics which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. If the new manager does not show some signs of success fairly quickly then the board concludes they obviously have the wrong manager and the cycle starts again.

So how does this compare to business?

Well, let’s consider why a business changes leadership. Businesses recruit a new leader because they are dissatisfied with the current leaders performance or because the incumbent leaves for a bigger/better paid/less stressful role. Another reason is through retirement. Sometimes a business is making a conscious departure from their previous strategy.

I was once told that every time someone leaves a business it is an opportunity to recruit someone better. If only it was clear what better means! Too often businesses change leaders for reasons other than wishing to change direction and recruit a leader with their own view of what the business needs and the freedom to change the business how they see fit. Anyone who does not go with the new direction is a problem and cabals are introduced to facilitate the change the leader desires. To be clear, I am not saying the leaders are trying to do anything other than a great job, but it is all too easy to see anyone who disagrees as an obstacle or a hindrance to change. Do you recognise this behaviour,  more to the point is this how you behave as a leader?

The easiest way to make an impression is to highlight all of the things that the previous leadership has done which do not conform to your world view. I am not talking here about genuine failings in the business, ethical, legal or otherwise, these must be highlighted and corrected, I am talking about all the other decisions that are combined with genuine problems to promote the story of how poor the previous leader was and how good their replacement will be. Let’s be honest, everyone who has taken a leadership role has found things they think are inappropriate and taken steps to change those behaviours. Sometimes these changes are justifiable and unavoidable, but sometimes the changes we make as leaders reflect our personalities and priorities rather than the business needs. If the only way to demonstrate your leadership capability is to dimish your predecessor and create a dip in profits to highlight what a good job you did in saving the business, maybe you are not such a great leader. Surely the stakeholders want someone who will maintain profits and develop an improvement in performance. There is a fine balance here, leaders must be able to identify the things they wish to change and give reasoned logic for making the change, but surely there must be something the previous leader was doing well?

So what makes a great leader?

The most effective leadership does not regularly change direction. The disadvantages of changing direction are well documented, for example, in Good To Great by Jim Collins, he demonstrates based on academic study the risks of changing direction and it’s effect on the momentum of the business. Collins also discusses ‘level five managers’, what I want to focus on here are the leadership behaviours that I have observed making a real difference to the performance of a business.

I have found that the following ten behaviours are common in great leaders

1. Honesty

It sounds easy, but in the modern world it is becoming harder to stay honest. Many leaders pressure their subordinates to suppress bad news or just deal with the problems. Any failure to resolve the issues is viewed as a failure of the leader at that level, for example there may be an expectation that the leader should be on site supervising every activity if there is a crisis. It is unacceptable for a leader to say “I trust my team to resolve this issue” and allow competent staff to do their jobs. If the leader admits they don’t know something, this is a shocking lack of capability. Leaders have to ensure during the good times that their staff and processes are effective in times of crisis. if a leader takes every decision, what happens if that leader leaves? Have they developed at least one leader to potentially replace them? Leaders must also be allowed to identify failings without fear of retribution. Truly honest leaders confront the real issues in their area of responsibility, admit their weaknesses and build a team with diverse skills that complement their own skill set. They also give both responsibility and authority to their teams to ensure that decisions are taken by those closest to the issue.

2. Integrity

Integrity seems an obvious quality, however it is not always easy to detect a lack of integrity. The easiest way for a leader to demonstrate a lack of integrity is for their actions to be at odds with their statements, although it can take time for the discrepancy to become clear. Clever leaders who lack integrity gradually shift their position so that it seems that they are consistent, indeed they are always consistent with their current priorities. However keeping up with their shifting priorities can be a significant challenge. The best leaders set out their principles at the outset, rarely change their position, and never change position without applying sound, reasoned logic and keeping the customer at the heart of their priorities.

3. Vision

A leader must always have a clear vision of where they are leading their team. If a leader cannot articulate what the result of their teams efforts will look like, they may not know. Equally, leaders must be looking at the horizon rather than at the floor. Leaders are the navigators of the business world, they need to have a clear vision of what they are trying to build and a clear roadmap of how to get there. Sometimes there is a view that just telling people what you want and leaving them to work out the details is good leadership. I don’t agree, when a leader passes on a so called BHAG – Big Hairy A***d Goal – without a plan what they are really doing is abdicating responsibility for achieving the objective they have set. Objectives without a plan for how to achieve them is not a vision, it is an aspiration. If a leader is not taking responsibility for achieving difficult goals, why should you be expected to deliver an aspiration without a plan to achieve it? This is an area where good leaders earn their reputation because a good leader not only has a roadmap to their destination, they also know what resources are required and the timescale over which the plan can be implemented.

4. Communication

Communication is a necessary skill for a leader. Communication doesn’t mean telling people clearly what you want to achieve, although that is an element of it. Communication also involves active listening, collecting views before setting the objectives so that the objective is a shared vision of what could be. the best leader canvass opinion before setting goals, discussing the opportunities and challenges involved in achieving the objective and assessing the risks with the people who will ultimately be responsible for delivering the objective BEFORE setting the objective, This must be a two-way communication, just imposing the vision and dismissing the concerns will result in poor engagement and commitment of the team to achieve the objective. Good leaders agree with their teams what must be achieved, then agree a plan with the people who must deliver the plan of how to achieve it.

5. Climate Free From Fear

Why would anyone tell the truth if they fear the consequences of honesty? The best leaders welcome bad news, that is not to say they want it, but by removing the fear associated with delivering bad news they are more likely to hear the truth. Hearing the truth early always helps leaders resolve issues and adjust plans to minimise the impact of bad news and failures. Calm and thorough problem solving can only happen when there is no fear of the problem or discussion of the problem. It must always be more important for a leader to know the facts than to hear what they want to hear.

A great leader never punishes the messenger, they always listen to the messenger and calmly work out what to do next. The key is remaining calm, this is far more of a strength than bashing the table, shouting and asserting your authority.

6. Humility

Great leaders recognise the skills in the team around them and use them to good effect. the best leaders have a knack of making the decisions of the team owned by their subordinates, even when they have coached them to the decision.

In particular, great leaders look in the mirror to find who is responsible when something goes unexpectedly wrong and out of the window to find who is responsible when something goes unexpectedly right. A leader who recognises the strength of their team before recognising their own input will be held in higher esteem than a leader who always claims credit for good results.

the best leaders are never absolutely certain their idea is best. They are not indecisive, but they are always open to the idea that someone may have a better idea and never too proud to admit someone else’s idea has more merit.

6. Data-Driven Decision Making

Leaders who base decisions on facts, not opinion will always find it easier to win their teams over. This requires the leader to understand the problem, investigate the issues and go see the problem. The data-driven leader will listen to those closest to the problem and ask them to provide data to substantiate their views. Forcing a particular interpretation of a data set onto a team is not the same as data-driven leadership. If the boss is going to do his own thing regardless of what your data says, there is no point in being rigorous about gathering the data. It is more efficient to spend as little time as possible in data gathering and do as you are told, no matter how misguided you believe that course of action to be.

A great leader values the data and works with those closest to the data and the process to understand what is happening and provide the required support and resources to unlock the best resolution

7. Discussion not coercion

Great leaders are open to discussion of anything. As soon as employees agree with the leader because they are the leader, you have coercion and are on the way to a climate driven by fear. Discussion allows other thought processes and require humility to accept that someone else might have a better idea, active listening to hear other people’s ideas and a true team ethos. That is not to say that ideas should not be challenged, of course they should be rigorously examined to ensure they are based on data and facts, tested for logical reasoning and understanding of cause and effect. The key is to seek evidence to support the idea rather than seek evidence to defeat the idea. Similarly, it is vital that leaders do not coerce their teams into supporting their ideas, convincing them is fine, but coercion is not acceptable.

8. Autopsies Without Blame

When there is a problem it is vital that the investigation reaches the true root cause of the problem. If the investigation is seen as a witch-hunt or if there is a perceived predetermined outcome this will always be an obstacle to finding the true root cause. If people are defensive, they are focused on proving it was not them, rather than focused on finding out what was the cause. If leaders maintain a rigorous focus on determining the facts then the true root cause is more likely to be found. Leaders who display the characteristics identified will more often find the real root cause and if they adhere to honesty as a key behaviour it is highly likely that their staff will also exhibit honesty. There is no need to blame someone, there is a far more powerful and positive way; people will take responsibility for their mistakes because it is the right thing to do and facilitates learning.

9. Focus on Processes not People

If leaders ask first “Who got it wrong?”, everyone will always make sure they have a good defence before they get into a discussion about what happened. There will be significant amounts of effort put into proving that ‘it wasn’t my fault’ instead of trying to identify what really went wrong. There are some great tools for examining what can and did go wrong, such as cause and effect analysis, Is-Is Not analysis, PM analysis and FMEA to name a few. Leaders use these tools to focus on what happened and if the leader has the right ethos in their team, people take personal responsibility and acknowledge their errors to ensure they can do better next time. Good leaders ask what can we do the prevent this happening again, great leaders ask what can we do to prevent this happening.

10. Red Flag Process

Having invested the time and effort to be a great leader, the next step is to start developing the next generation of leaders. To do this we have to give our staff responsibility and there can be no greater responsibility than understanding when to say ‘No’. It is too easy to say I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t stop it. A good red flag mechanism tolerates stopping a process incorrectly since this highlights a need for education. Mistakes mean the process is not clearly understood, and the leadership has work to do ensuring that the process is not only reliable but is also clearly communicated and understood. Which is worse, stopping a production line briefly because the product was believed to be poor quality when it was, in fact fine, or failing to stop a production line and sending defective material to the customer. Remember that processes only add value when producing material the customer will pay for. My experience is that most customers won’t pay for defective material.

If you can display most of these behaviours most of the time you are likely to be a good leader, but be honest with yourself, could you give evidence of demonstrating the behaviour? This list is not exhaustive, there are many other fine characteristics that leaders must demonstrate, however I believe that if you start with these behaviours and build the relevant technical skills around them you can become a great leader.