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What are the fundamentals of good leadership? We often hear generic characteristics of good leadership, such as ‘communicating a clear vision’ or ‘the ability to execute effectively’. These are commonsense answers but extremely simplistic. In reality, things tend to be more complex. There are no standard rules or formulas for good leadership.

 

The one thing I’m certain of, in dealing with close to 100 world leaders in our Ducere Global Leaders Faculty, is that you couldn’t get a more diverse group of people. Men and women, old and young. Assertive to collaborative, political to corporate. Obsessed with capital growth versus an overriding emphasis on shared value. Inherent genius as opposed to street smarts. Hands-off visionary compared to strict micro-management.

So how do we reconcile these varied, even contradictory traits? And what lessons can would-be leaders derive from these differences? If you’re looking for a step-by-step guide to leadership, you have come to the wrong place. There are many other sources of shallow self-help, think: ‘The 10 secret steps to leadership success’ or ‘What leaders know but won’t tell you’. These are easy to find, cheaper in value than the few dollars they cost, and naive in their analysis.

Leadership is far more complex and dependent on many internal and external factors. Actually, it’s not even possible to consider the question, ‘What are the fundamentals of good leadership?’ as an isolated endeavour. We must first consider another question, ‘What is the desired outcome of that leadership?’ To show what I mean, consider the following desired outcomes of some potential leadership positions:

  • CEO of ABC Corporation, which is in a highly competitive, low margin industry that has a strategic outcome to be the largest in the country.
  • CEO of XYZ Corporation, a start-up tech company looking to expand through a range of collaborative partnerships.
  • A military General operating in a very volatile region that wants to restore order and clamp down on terrorist activities.
  • A political leader operating in a democratic country with financial and political stability, that wants to balance the needs of multiple constituencies.

Now let’s go back to the question of leadership and what the fundamental qualities are. Taking into consideration the range of leadership roles above, it is obvious that there cannot be a generic ‘cookie cutter’ answer. The leader of company ABC may be the most impressive CEO who succeeds through a necessarily aggressive competitive strategy to squash the competition. But would this person succeed in the role of leading a political party wishing to build collaborative trust? Probably not.

We see evidence of this reality everywhere. Individuals, who have amassed personal fortunes and had the most incredible commercial success, try their hand at politics and fall flat on their face. Conversely, great political leaders after leaving office, typically experience great difficulty trying to find their feet in the private sector.


Some might say that’s not always the case, look at New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s true there are always exceptions to every rule but, generally speaking, crossing a huge cultural divide is not easily achieved. A CEO who achieves great success running a multinational public company, struggles when trying to get a fledgling start up off the ground. Aside from the rare exception, what you will typically discover is failure because the qualities that tend to make for a great leader in one set of circumstances, are very different to those qualities required to serve well in a totally different environment.

At first, this might sound like bad news; that there is no magic rule book to simply read, memorise and away we go. However, this is actually incredibly exciting news. It means that we don’t need to try to fit into a set mould, a set of traits that might impinge on our personality or even our ethics. In fact, the best approach is to dig deep into one’s own personality and character, and determine where those traits would best be served to reach a leadership position.

If I look narcissistically at myself for a moment, I believe I have strong leadership skills as an entrepreneur. I possess the ability to identify an opportunity, establish and communicate the vision, and build that vision into a profitable enterprise. I am passionate about the innovation, the process of formulating an idea and seeing it come alive. To me, being an entrepreneur is a form of art, like painting or music; creating something new and meaningful that didn’t exist before.

An authentic leader can’t hide their passion, motivation and determination to succeed.

On the other hand, those skills are not conducive to running the day-to-day operations of a major corporation so, in the past, I have either sold enterprises once they achieved a certain scale, or employed others to lead in all aspects, save for strategy and innovation. I would, I believe, be quite terrible at running a global bank. A military leader for someone always wanting to please? Likely to end in nothing short of disaster. But I can lead a start up to create innovative and globally competitive products, at least, I think so. Could I lead my own household and juggle the million things my wife does? Well, that might just end as badly as a stint as a military leader.

So the real question is not ‘What are the fundamentals of good leadership?’; the key to successful leadership is to identify what your fundamental characteristics are and, therefore, the right leadership environment in which for you to thrive. If you are able to align your core competencies, values and work ethic into a field that requires exactly those character traits, you will become one of the best leaders in your chosen field. On the other hand, bending your core values to fit into a role that isn’t for you will create a disingenuous leadership style. This will likely end unsatisfactorily for the role and almost certainly end in personal dissatisfaction.

One character trait that every great leader will exhibit, from the military leader running an army, to the mum leading her home, is that of authentic leadership. An authentic leader can’t hide their passion, motivation and determination to succeed. And these are the traits above all else that one needs, why? Consider for a moment the opposite of leading: following. We place so much emphasis on what a leader should or should not do, but what about empathising for a moment with those that are expected to do the ‘following’. Who are they likely to follow? The answer is someone they have enough confidence and trust in that they are willing to put their careers, their finances, even their lives on the line. You can try to fool people for a time but, in the end, those you wish to lead will see through the fake, and all loyalty (and therefore leadership currency) will be lost. Only authentic leadership will succeed in the long run.

Good leadership is, of course, about the internal qualities one needs to develop to become a more effective leader. And we can always do better at improving our skills. But it is just as much about finding the right environment to lead in.

 

First published June 2014.

This content is proudly sponsored by Ducere.