I’ve always been fascinated by the topic of leadership throughout my career. But leadership seen from a practical and pragmatic perspective, as in: What works? What does good look like? What traits should be honed and learnt by leaders to enable for great results?
There are two main schools of thought in this space: one that majors mostly on the need for soft skills and emotional intelligence and another that is more focused on technical competencies. I will begin this article from the critical standpoint which allows me to “get rid” of the technical competencies aspect off the list.
Whichever way you cut the cake, if a leader doesn’t come with the know-how, s/he will not be able to succeed or deliver results by relying 100% on their Teams.
There are things you can delegate – and to be clear, by “delegate” I mean effectively delegate – and there are others which you as the leader need to do yourself. To remain on the topic of delegation for a moment longer (e.g. on your reliance on the Team for getting stuff done), the leader keeps the accountability for the tasks, but delegates responsibility – and this is a fundamental concept which is linked to my point about having technical competence.
As a leader you need to know and judge whether the output of your Team or of a single staff member, or indeed of your external consultant, is “on-point” and hits the mark. Otherwise your own effectiveness and ultimately your own reputation is at stake…and your Leadership will be questioned.
Take for example a leader operating in the space of a start-up: to make of it a success, they need to know all aspects of running a business, from HR, to recruitment, from logistics to operations, from legal to sales and marketing etc. If you don’t have a general knowledge of these areas, the start-up isn’t going to take off in the way in which you had anticipated. Similarly, in a more established business, where you are surrounded by Business Partners like HR, Legal, Procurement, Contracts, Operations, Planning, Sales and Marketing etc., and depending on which one of these departments you’re leading on – you need know what you want from them and act “intelligently”. If you need to create a high profile presentation to a client to close a lucrative deal, or a presentation to the Board, it is you who needs to make it and present it convincingly. You will surely receive inputs from the specialists including from your Team; but it will be you who will be piecing these inputs together into a coherent artwork, capable of influencing your audience in your favor. So you’d better know what you’re talking about, grasp your facts and figures along with the rest of the unwritten nuances, like the back of your hand.
Having said all of that, technical competencies form only part of our leadership tool kit.
Studies in this field have shown that there are five major themes of competencies that strong leaders exhibit (HBR. Dr. Sunny Giles):
High ethical standards and providing a safe environment
A safe place to work is number 1 precondition – the foundation if you like – of building a high performing team. A team that feel safe will be able to perform at their best with innovation and creativity without feeling threatened or fearing being caught out by management. From a neuroscience perspective, job #1 for leaders consists of making sure that people feel safe on a deep level. But how is this achieved? In my experience, there is something about providing a clear direction and a deliver your messages in a consistent and clear manner, setting clear expectations. It is also about encouraging the team to take risks and to provide a safety net for them in case of failure, and to act with empathy and compassion…and a good dose of forgiveness.
Empowering individuals to self organize
I cannot emphasize enough the leadership trait of empowering others, your team and your suppliers, to deliver great results. If you are given the space and the tools to perform, to accomplish your tasks, then your productivity will multiply several fold. Micromanaging would be the opposite trait. There’s no point in hiring talented people and in telling them what to do; they need to be given the platform to tell us what to do for the best.
Promoting connection and belonging among employee
The leader must create a sense of community and belonging amongst team members, who in turn need to feel like they are part of a group or a team jelled together by a common purpose and common goals, as well as by similar challenges and success stories. We are a social species and we do better when we are surrounded by people whom we can relate to. The current pandemic has demonstrated the profound psychological impact of isolation from each other, some would argue with massive consequences on people’s wellness and happiness. With need connection and the leader must create such an environment based on inclusion, diversity and engagement at all levels.
Open to new ideas and experimentation
A critical trait of a leader is to foster a growth mindset amongst his/her team. This is about how the team is exposed to learning and how people are allowed to grow and learn “on your watch”. This is where the leader becomes a coach just like a sports coach would act to their players. Learning by doing is the best approach. Team members must be given a chance to try new moves, new approaches, new techniques without the fear of making an error or failing in their task. In my experience, leaders must encourage people to do, to create that Business Case, to come up with that innovative idea, to build that slide deck and present it, to pull together that project plan and hold a stakeholder session to validate it etc. But if they don’t know how, the leader must coach and train the team, ideally in person and in the field, practically, (in addition to providing any formal training). In other words, the leader must do all possible to set his/her team up for success which in turn will act as positive reinforcement in the future and accelerate growth.
Committed to the professional and intellectual growth of employee
The leader must grow his/her people into competent agents of change and business actors on a local (departmental) as well as global (corporate wise) scale, by promoting their strengths and abilities in front of senior management and by allowing them to gain the credit for those efforts even when the leader has invested time in coaching the team to look good and perform at their best.