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Downturn magnifies need for good leaders

Published on Friday, 16 Apr 2010
Steve DeKrey says interpersonal skills are vital to ensure students are able to apply what they learn in the classroom to the workplace.

Steve DeKrey is programme director of MBA and EMBA programmes at the University of Science and Technology (HKUST). He has conducted substantial research into leadership issues, and teaches leadership programmes to students in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Here he gives us his views on what makes a good leader and how effective leadership can benefit an organisation.

What are the characteristics that define effective leaders and do they differ across cultures?

There are some universally accepted characteristics of leaders that we all tend to agree on. These include competence, honesty and an ability to look to the future. Since coming to Asia around 14 years ago, I have discovered that these sought-after characteristics are the same here as they are across Europe, the United States and other parts of the world.

On top of these, leaders today need to understand the macroeconomic issues and environment they work in. We're really looking for global leaders today, leaders who can respond to diversity. It's the same whether these leaders come from China, the rest of Asia or anywhere else in the world.

Are there any styles of leadership that are most conducive to success? 

I do a lot of research in different styles of leadership, by which we really mean the personality of the leader, and I have discovered that leadership style is not overly predictive of success. All styles can be very successful and there is certainly no dream style. Because of this, when it comes to teaching about leadership in the classroom we aim to get candidates to build on whatever style they already have and to turn it into their own special approach to leadership - everyone has a different approach.

The downturn has magnified the need for good leaders. Of course, it's a lot easier to be a good leader when everything is going well - when things get tougher it becomes harder to lead effectively. I think creative, innovative leadership is what is really needed in a downturn, as well as stronger, more confident leaders. Even in good times, effective leaders are hard to find, and in a downturn doubly so. The past year or so has highlighted a need for leadership development and selection. 

Has the economic downturn increased the need for effective leaders in the workplace? 

Research from our faculty has shown that in a severe downturn, you can expect almost half of the companies to be eliminated through going bankrupt, being merged, bought or simply going out of business - and these tend to be the companies that are more poorly led. A downturn really puts a spotlight on every company's weaknesses, and certainly poor leadership is a part of that. 

What are the effects of poor leadership in the workplace? 

Obviously, the best leaders will be the ones who can predict a downturn, but even some of the greatest leaders of the business world didn't predict the recent crisis. We think that the successful leaders are those who are talented at managing and strengthening their companies through the downturn. Only a small percentage of leaders today are good at it.

Is good leadership dependent on academic ability and a high level of intelligence? 

The way I define intelligence is 'the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge". The knowledge that someone can acquire in the classroom may not necessarily apply well in the workplace. To apply what is known requires an EQ [emotional quotient] capability, not just intellect. Interpersonal skills are vital - A-grade students aren't guaranteed to be good leaders at all. We find that more balanced, B-students are the more likely leaders. They do more sports, they socialise more and do other things in school.

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