Leadership today: what qualities are we looking for?
Over the past 30 years in my role as a corporate consultant and leadership trainer, I have had the privilege of working with countless individuals in senior executive positions. I have observed and studied their behaviour and personal characteristics to get a better understanding of how they operate and how people respond to their direction.
All of us, at the various stages of our lives, tend to gravitate towards certain kinds of leaders – and are less impressed by others. Typically, we are most attracted by those who exude a sense of charisma and are eloquent in the way they communicate. In formal speeches and public appearances, they are able to convince with persuasive use of language or even their tone of voice. But ultimately an effective leader must win trust and respect through a combination of ability, credibility and likeability. That became clear in the way leaders of different countries responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, which also highlighted the importance of a number of other qualities:
In moments of crisis, people need guidance, but they also want to be heard and understood. A good leader, especially one who is hoping - or obliged by circumstances - to make real change, recognises that. Making the effort to create that connection builds trust, which in turn allows the person in charge to be more effective in subsequent plans and actions.
Those who assume responsibility when the going gets tough, yet are ready to give others credit where due are generally considered great leaders. Regrettably, Covid-19 has provided some well publicised instances of senior officials looking to avoid or deflect accountability and being unwilling to accept obvious realities. This, though, has been a reminder that any leader’s prime task is to serve others, not to consider what’s best for themselves.
Being a leader is no guarantee you will always get things right. But to do so most of the time, it is important to understand strengths and weaknesses – yours and other people’s. It is then possible to build stronger teams, which make the most of particular talents and can overcome deficiencies. Over the past 18 months, good national leaders took the advice of medical experts to make sense of the situation and point the way ahead. Doing so showed intelligence and self-awareness. No one can be best at everything, so knowing where and when to seek advice is the sign of someone who knows how to lead well.
Good communication is not just a matter of sharing information. Ideally, it should also be seen as the source of impactful knowledge which can spark change and build trust. These days, every leader has to respect the need for transparency and be ready to speak the truth even in difficult circumstances. People can accept mistakes, provided there is a clear strategy in hand to address the problem. What they never like is being disregarded or deceived,
If you hope to influence someone, you must first win their trust. Once that is done, a certain connection is established, which then means it is easier to deliver news, whether good or bad, and achieve an outcome seen as desirable for the individual or organisation concerned. That is a key part of any leader’s job, but it is a skill which takes time to develop. Its importance, though, has been clearer than ever during the crises and challenges of the Covid era.
By Raju Sajnani, chief executive, EHP Hong Kong