Qualities of a Great Leader by Tina Thomson
Published in Women Inc. Magazine
Thousands of leaders have great external leadership skills but no inner character. There are also thousands of people of great character who do not have the necessary leadership skills. Strength, intelligence, logic, experience, humour, selflessness, loyalty, optimism, enthusiasm and even mystique may be some of the qualities that describe a great leader, but I will emphasise the qualities that I consider imperative for a celebrated leader…
In my opinion, a great leader exhibits both confidence and humility. This may be a paradox, but it is vital for the leader to simply “know what he or she knows, and to know what he or she doesn’t know”. Acknowledgment of shortcomings gains respect and trust, as do confidence and conviction. Confidence to say and do what is right is essential, but, the passion to fight against what is wrong is just as vital. Thus the leader has to be solid and courageous enough to take risks: to stand up, to stand out and stand alone! The word courage from the French word “coeur” means heart. Thus, courage is not a quality that comes from the brain - it comes from the heart and the gut! It is a strong emotional commitment with the emphasis on emotion, simply because there are times when intellectual sense and logic do not drive decisions. The bigger the context, the greater the barriers the more there will be times for courageous acts. People who go down in history as great leaders always exhibit this quality.
I believe that when Tom Peters said, “Leaders have to be the rock of Gibraltar on roller skates”, he had fully comprehended the crucial need for yet another paradox: stability and flexibility. Although the leader must be guided by unchanging beliefs, the ability to adapt and acclimatize to circumstances must come naturally. A great leader is empathetic with all cultures and respectful of all belief systems and can successfully make the necessary changes needed in the organisation so that everyone is accommodated and valued. The leader’score of integrity provides a bedrock of security to deal efficiently with various situations. The workplace is fraught with constant change and inevitable chaos; whether it is changing policies, laws, stakeholders, employees, conditions and even environments; if the leader has set values, it is relatively simple to make the right decisions.
How does a great leader remain true to his or her unique character whilst allowing employees to find meaning and purpose in their work, and running a profitable business? One could argue that the reason for being in business is to make money and that while finding meaning and purpose is a noble pursuit, maximising profits is the priority… I believe that the character of a leader is the composite of enduring principles and traits, beliefs, and the integrity and conviction of those beliefs. The competence of the leader is the sum of all his or her abilities and strengths. Together, character and competence establish trustworthiness. Leaders are exemplary when they lead with a balance of both honesty and sensitivity. What are the beliefs that drive the leader’s business decisions? Does the leader’s personal beliefs define who he or she is at work, or do the business rules of the world define the leader? In my view, the character of the leader is built in the private life of that individual and not in the workplace. So one needs to examine who that person is in private because the secret of success is hidden in the leader’s daily routine. Let us not forget that habits create purpose… My view is that when a leader is comitted to his or her values, the followers develop confidence and purpose. This translates into productivity and hence into profit.
Leaders are decisive: they have absolute clarity of the vision of the organisation and they understand the connection between thoughts, beliefs, actions and outcomes. They know that at times when critical business decisions have no correct answer, they can only make those decisions with a leap of faith based on their values. The solution is to trust one’s own principles so that one is effective and significant in the midst of a pressured and demanding environment. Most important of all the qualities; the impressive leader must be responsible. Responsibility is the key attribute that all leaders must demonstrate, but extraordinary leaders accept that they are accountable at all times to all people at all costs.
I believe that life’s experiences and crises are natural stepping stones to success as a leader, because resilience is absolutely necessary for effective leadership. Leadership qualities cannot be learnt from a book or a course…Life itself will teach the qualities needed to be a great leader. I believe that great leaders are strengthened by pressure. When Eugene Kranz said, “Failure is not an option”, when bringing home Apollo 13, he was confident because he had enough experience. A distinguished leader can draw on what it takes to deal with the situation at hand because of incidents and experiences that the leader has lived through. More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails – this is true in a hospital ward, it is true in the Olympics, it is true in life and its true in the boardroom. Objectivity and focus on fact as opposed to focus on opinion will result in the leader being exceptional. Herein lies the quality of compassion and consideration for one’s employees. I feel very strongly that identifying with the needs and concerns of one’s employees can only be sincere if the leader recognises and has lived through similar problems. A remarkable leader has the ability to pinpoint, classify and deal with the dilemma because of the earnest empathy that he or she feels.
“Leadership should be more participative than directive, more enabling than performing”. Mary D Poole best describes my view of great leadership in that leaders evoke as opposed to directing. They see the potential and they extract the best out of their people, thereby creating other leaders! I personally insist on working on projects together with my colleagues and in knowing every aspect of the business from the ground up. When the focus is shifted from success of an individual to service of stakeholders, a great leader evolves.