What Makes a Great Leader?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - 07:22

By Leon Gettler

Last week, we looked at the difference between a manager and a leader. The two are very different although both are important. You can’t have any organisation without either of them. Leadership requires certain sorts of skills and distinctive characteristics. For some, it comes naturally. Others have to learn it. And then there are those who never pick it up at all. What makes a great leader?

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman says the best leaders need emotional intelligence. That is to say, they need self-awareness and self-control, they have to be motivated and they have to be working for reasons that go beyond money and status. They need empathy and the ability to understand the emotional make-up of other people and finally, they need the skills to build relationships and social networks. Without all of that, they can’t be good leaders no matter how skilled they might be in other areas.

“It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant,’’ Goleman writes. “They do matter, but mainly as “threshold capabilities”; that is, they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. But my research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”

World-renowned advertising executive David Ogilvy says great leaders have high standards of personal ethics, they have to be big people and not show any pettiness, they need to have guts under pressure and be resilient in defeat. They should have a capacity for hard work and burning the midnight oil, some degree of charisma or at the very least know how to be charming and persuasive, have a certain streak of unorthodoxy with the ability to think creatively and outside the square, the courage to make tough decisions, show enthusiasm and they always need a sense of humour.

One of the great management thinkers Stephen Covey says great leaders have to inspire trust. “You show others that you believe in their capacity to live up to certain expectations, to deliver on promises, and to achieve clarity on key goals,’’ Covey says. “You don’t inspire trust by micromanaging and second guessing every step people make.” They also clarify their purpose, their vision if you like, and get people involved. “If people are involved in the process, they psychologically own it and you create a situation where people are on the same page about what is really important—mission, vision, values, and goals,” he says.

Great leaders also make sure all the systems are aligned. “This means that you don’t allow there to be conflict between what you say is important and what you measure,’’ he says. “For instance, many times organisations claim that people are important but in fact the structures and systems, including accounting, make them an expense or cost centre rather than an asset and the most significant resource.” And finally, they have to know how to empower people. Their talent is unleashed so that their capacity, their intelligence, their creativity, and their resourcefulness is utilised,’’ he says.