Build your skills: What makes a good leader?

Successful leaders mix ambition, resilience, and the ability to ditch ideas that aren’t working, argues Brunel University’s Professor Zahir Irani

By Zahir Irani

30 Apr 2015

No matter how successful you've been in your career, to be a leader is to live dangerously and often on the edge. You might have a strong network of supporters, a raft of skills and stock of resilience but leadership is always going to leave you open to challenges, to being undermined and for any weakness to be exposed and openly shared. Those challenges are only going to be exacerbated by what's ahead in the coming months – instability, rapid change and pressure to make an impression quickly.

Perhaps the greatest mistake any leader can make is thinking they've 'made it' by being appointed to a top job. That's when the real interview starts. To put it in a negative sense, effective leadership is about survival. But survival at the top is in itself an achievement, and there are ways in which demonstrating leadership can be made long and consistently rewarding.

Be ambitious. The position of a leader is based on the perceptions and attitudes of their 'followers'. They want to feel motivated - and inspired - by thinking on the big picture and plans for the future, the rich picture. Not empty ideas, so the ambition needs to be backed up by thoughtful, worked out strategy that can be implemented. Creating this vision is very much also about knowing what not to do and why not.

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Lead from the front. Don't hide away; know when to break away from strategising, especially when there are problems or the need to generate traction. Be seen about the office, talking to everyone involved, taking action and sharing the learning experience. Once you've set out a vision, your reputation and the basis of trust in your leadership will primarily be based on what's been delivered, and the role you've taken in helping this happen.

Also lead from the back. You need to know every member of your team and their strengths; know when to tap into this expertise. There might well be people working more in the shadows of the organisation who could be contributing more. Draw them out, empower them through new responsibilities and opportunities for development; it’s about being developed and developing others. It provides a sense of optimism, momentum and progress within teams, evidence of your progressive influence on people's careers, as well as more individual supporters for the future.

Know your environment and create more leaders like you. Don't be defensive by seeing yourself as the one and only. The best leaders tend to play an active role in creating the next generation, who can also work as important supporters and sources of information. Your leaders are also more likely to be in tune with your ideas and own leadership style or should be able to provide you with advice and the support needed to help make you embrace change around your development needs.

Use your circle of influence. As the saying goes, keep your friends close and your rivals even closer. It's always best to have a broad circle of influence, particularly when it comes to driving change. The more ambitious, the more you'll need champions, influencers and their own networks to pull behind you. Make sure your rivals know that its best to influence you from within than outside your circle of influence.

Consider how people see you and hear you. Effective leaders purposely develop a particular persona through how they behave, how they sound (even how they dress) in different circumstances. You also need to develop the skill of re-packaging the same message in multiple ways so as to be understood by diverse audiences.

Quitting is leading too. You have to be able to hold your hand up and drop bad ideas, accept it was flawed or that things have just moved on - otherwise, you might need to be the one who needs to move on! If it looks broken, it probably is and might need prompt intervention. There's a balance to this of course, don’t quit on ideas and projects too often otherwise you will lose the confidence of others and get a reputation for quitting that will be very hard to shake off. Learning from failure is one of the most important lessons in business. Having the strength to admit to yourself and others that you've made mistakes, staying positive and genuinely taking time to understand what should have been done differently and making the changes, not running away.

Drop the detail. One of the hardest challenges faced by managers looking to take the step up to more senior roles is to learn to let go of the day-to-day operational issues. Everything about their experience so far has been that the devil is all in the detail; keep on top of projects and people, use your own technical skills and knowledge to support them, and it will all work out. But leaders must have freedom from the detail to have the bigger ideas, to challenge the norms and focus their time on people and not process. That takes confidence, an unrelenting belief in what you are ultimately seeking to do in the organisation, even during those darker moments.


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