What Makes a Great Leader?

I have been doing an online course recently called Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence. As part of the homework, participants were asked to talk about their own experience of good and bad leaders, and what in our opinion made great leaders. This was my submission which received some good feedback, so I thought I would share it.

My own experience is that great leaders, first and foremost, are clear and passionate about what they are aiming to do. They have a simple objective and they are open about sharing it with their team.

People always want to follow someone who is driving towards something tangible, worthwhile and inspiring in and of itself so communication of purpose is critical.

Secondly, they understand their role as being one of guiding and supporting their colleagues in doing their best, helping them to improve themselves, and in achieving the collective goal.

I should also say that I have seen all of these attributes in people at all levels of organisations, not just at the top. In many cases, businesses only functioned well because of these lower level and shop-floor leaders, in spite of poor leadership at CEO level.

Thirdly, the great leaders were genuine, authentic people who behaved with the same drive, curiosity and integrity outside of the business as much as they did inside. They were self-aware, humble and knew the value of understanding others and how people related to each other.

The poor leaders that I have worked under, and worked with as clients, operated in different scenarios. Those in which the leader was the founder with the determination and drive to get the business started, but because of a lack of empathy and basic people skills, behaved like a tyrant.

Others in which the leader made it all about themselves rather than the business or the team, failed because they were trying to impress outsiders. And then there were the leaders who thought that they needed to change into someone different from their natural persona as soon as they put on the Executive Suit – the struggle with maintaining the false identity was too stressful for them.

The best leader I worked for told me early on that it was his responsibility as a manager to help me do the best job that I could and he was there to serve his team. His opening sentence in individual and group meetings was, “We all know what we are trying to achieve here, so what can I do to help you to be better and achieve it?”

We would tell him and he would do it. Because of his actions,  we would have walked through brick walls for him. Unfortunately, I met him early in my career and didn’t really value his leadership until many years later and only after having experienced the ‘I tell, you do’ approach that I have seen so much in the 30 years since then.

So for me it is simple – be yourself, be decisive, explain what you are looking to achieve, focus on the greater good, not yourself, and support your team as they grow, both individually and collectively.