Traits of Good Leadership and can it be taught?

Published on June 10, 2020

“I am the monarch of all I survey;

My right there is none to dispute;

From the centre all round to the sea

I am the lord of the foul and the brute”

(William Cowper: 1731-1800)

Writing his “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk” in the late 18th century, William Cowper could well have been offering his stanza as a paean to bad leadership. His words imply titled (and entitled) primacy, unchallengeable authority exercised with a detachedly superior disdain and a sweeping gaze. Command and control… the “big I am”… be afraid!!!

In an earlier post on the underlying issues that cause corporations (most especially, it seems, in commodities markets), to suffer from unauthorised trading losses, we identified the dangers of a culture of leadership by fear resulting in the propensity to “cover up” rather than to “own up” when things take a turn for the worse.

Of course, leadership by fear and the febrile atmosphere it engenders, is far from the only unattractive trait too often discernible at the top of the tree. But rather than embracing negativity, better surely to look to the other side of the coin and examine, in a concise manner, the necessary positive characteristics of good leaders.

There is no time like the present to construct a discussion on leadership given the apparent lack of it that we are all experiencing to our future cost. The current crucible of lockdown, racial conflict and the avalanche of economic and social problems (that will undoubtedly ensue from the blunt instruments that have been wielded by our elected leaders over the last several months of crisis) will surely haunt our futures. Arguably, panic has masqueraded as leadership and finesse has been called for with deafening silence.

What then should be coveted as the traits of good leadership? The written works on the subject contributed by academics, “coaches”, management scientists and many others would fill a large library while the content of this short commentary might almost be written on a fingernail! Yet the conciseness of one’s “tuppence-worth”  can work well in a world where many of us – in the words, not of a philosopher, but of ex England centre three-quarter Jeremy Guscott (in reference to his British Lions colleague Gregor Townsend) – have “the attention span of a gnat”! This, then, is no laundry list of the 27 or 36 or 43 things a leader must do… according to the word of the search consultant community.

There are five things – comprised of amalgams of about a dozen sub skills – surely digestible by even the most attention span challenged reader that we would identify.

Humility is a trait that is difficult to fake. Self deprecation (genuinely offered) can disarm an opponent and serve to build bridges when conflict needs to be extinguished. It is an underrated and underappreciated skill although it may be naturally acquired and so impossible to teach.

It is a privilege to be allowed to assume a leadership position. Colleagues, supervisors, voters and others in different settings have vested their trust in their leader and as such, the power of the office must be exercised with grace and humility and not with a tyranny borne of entitlement. There is no room for narcissism but plenty of room for selflessness.

Humility breeds accessibility – no ogre there to be afraid of approaching. And magnanimity, especially at times of success and with those less privileged is an attractive trait of the born leader.

So, there we are – primus inter pares – and all that! It is about the news not about the presenter.

Integrity and its sub strands of honesty and decency is a second amalgam. Those who accept the trust of others to exercise life influencing judgments must use the power of their privileged position with integrity. As we know, “the fish rots from the head down” and the tone emanating from the moral compass at the top must be unimpeachable. This goes to the theme of culture. Culture, as we know, pays. Bad culture is costly. The type of conduct based on a good culture should be as eagerly sought by companies and organisations as it is by Regulators and increasingly by all stakeholders. Risk control no longer simply means market or operational risk; it means reputation risk which if pierced, can undo an age of good work in the blinking of an eye. Culture and conduct borne of integrity, decency and honesty are powerful shields.

A third characteristic centres around transparency. Within this we find openness, accessibility and a willingness to effectively communicate. It is only possible for followers to understand the strategic objectives that they are being asked to facilitate in their own small corners, if that strategy is clearly enunciated such that they can buy in to it and follow through with execution in pursuit of it. Knowledge won from a transparent operation enables followers to feel tied in, to feel part of something that they value and to feel they are ahead of those who are not “in the know” in their own organisations and groupings. It enables us to justify following the leader (rather than, say, following the science – a sort of pass the parcel approach to strategy!).

For number four, we need look no further than to the teaching of the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. A friendly, gregarious fellow apparently, but with a piercing intellect, he valued judgment borne of experience as the holy grail of human reasoning. Implied here is the possession of a sufficient and detailed knowledge base and intellectual capacity and the wit to apply experience in the exercise of good judgement. Are we currently paying a heavy price for the absence of good judgment in the world of this present moment?

Lastly, we may consider authenticity to be a critical quality of the leader. Genuineness and credibility breed respect. Been there, done that… even if it was “back in the day”. We are all much less opaque than we may think we are when up front on the podium and the blagger will eventually be defenestrated. Orators we may be, but form fades away when substance is exposed as being lacking-eventually.

We need to celebrate the right leadership role models. Not he who shouts loudest nor he who is the most terrifying. Certainly not the “Davos-ian” celebrity seekers. Nor those who just want to win the popularity contest, get the title, and then what? To use the language and clichés of the leadership “coach” types, leadership is a team game, it requires the whole team to score goals, leadership is “we” not “I” and it is something one does “with” and not “to” people. Perhaps New Zealand Premier, Jacinda Ardern, comes most easily to mind as a current leadership role model.

At no time is leadership more needed and more sought after as in times of crisis. Those who seek it are doing so because they keenly feel the fragility of their position as uncertainties cloud the future and their economic and social wellbeing feels threatened. Ask any survivor of the 2008 credit crisis how much they cherished good leadership back then. They have been there, and they know. At such times, when fear stalks the room, true leaders step up to meet these challenges. Leadership at such a time is all about what one becomes under pressure. At such times, without strong leadership, people make their own decisions – good, bad, aligned, non-aligned and chaos reigns. Of course, strong leaders still need to have a vision informed by strategy (the subject of a recent guest post on the Energex site) and at times of disequilibrium setting and evolving a strategy can be a tricky business.

Choosing a leader, we suggest, should address humility, integrity, transparency, judgment and authenticity within which other sub-characteristics reside. A chosen leader should have been tested under pressure and passed that examination. Why, when we look around, are such individuals not ten-a-penny? Surely if leadership could be taught, many would emerge. Perhaps though, it is innate, developed over time as we grow and mature: acquired rather than learned. What is clear though, is that we could all do with some right now!!!