What’s the secret to being a great leader?

Guest blogger:

Sarah_PlattsSarah Platts, Open University Business School MBA Alumnus, Change Consultant at FreshNetworks 

Last year I wrote about innovation having attended an Open University Business School event on the topic, and recently I’ve just been to another one all about leadership. Here’s a quick summary of 6 questions and answers that came out of the session:

1. What do we mean by leadership?

Eyes onlyProfessor Jean Hartley took everyone through the 5 Ps:

  • Person – personal characteristics and leadership style(s).
  • Position – e.g. a position of authority often creates access to resource pools, but equally there are many leaders who don’t hold positions of formal authority.
  • Process – i.e. between a set of stakeholders, and energising and organising others.
  • Performance – achievements and skills.
  • Projection – both in terms of the qualities the leader projects to others, and which others project onto the leader.

The advice was to consider all 5 Ps as opposed to focusing on just one area.

2. What type of leadership is best?

It depends on the context, and the type of problem the leader is encountering, e.g. Rittel and Webber’s:

  • Tame problems – which although complicated are still resolvable because we’ve come across them before and know how to fix them. In these cases leadership is more about applying tried and tested approaches capably.
  • Wicked problems – which we’ve never encountered before, and are typically interlinked with so many other factors and issues as to make them incredibly complex and multi-faceted. In these cases leadership is about asking the right questions, and knowing who the right stakeholders are to be involved, and how they should be managed.

3. What skills should a leader possess?

According to Professor Hartley:

  • Strategic direction & scanning – what you need to do, and when, and the tenacity to stick to it. The leader really has to believe in it if it’s going to be a success.
  • Building alignment & alliances – i.e. the leader as a “connector”, and crucially demonstrating political astuteness – a skill which people accepted was important in Hartley’s research, despite the stigma and “dark arts” reputation of organisational power and politics.
  • Reading people & situations – e.g. alertness to different agendas and power pockets.
  • Interpersonal skills – a mixture of hard and soft skills, and crucially listening to people and properly communicating with them, as well as understanding different situations and perspectives.
  • Personal skills – self-awareness and self-control, being genuinely curious about others, and taking the time to be self-reflective and learn from mistakes and feedback.

How do people learn these skills though? According to Hartley’s research, people tend to learn most through making mistakes, and the inference was that more could be done to enhance training and development activities and programmes.

4. What’s an example of these leadership skills in practice?

The FT’s Caspar de Bono gave a particularly interesting talk which highlighted the importance of strategic direction and planning through his concept of leadership as action that is purposeful, but also creative (changing the paradigm), and courageous (i.e. you are out front, leading the way). In the FT’s case it was about listening to what customers wanted, and sticking to their business knitting while still innovating (i.e. operating broadly the same business model, but through improved digital channels and technology). The key was always to keep a clear idea of the WHAT while allowing the HOW to be more emergent, and informed by stakeholder involvement and analysis.

5. What’s the best leadership style to have?

In short: a mixture, and adapted to the particular business context in question (e.g. its size, stage of development, etc. etc.). Hay Group’s Lubna Haq identified 6 leadership styles, and asserted that the most effective leaders tend to have a minimum of 3 or more dominant / preferred ones:

  • Directive – based more on control and coercion, often more prevalent during downturns.
  • Visionary – opposite of directive and is primarily about building and selling a compelling vision.
  • Affiliative – creating harmony.
  • Participative – involving others.
  • Pace-setting – accomplishing tasks to a very high standard of excellence.
  • Coaching – focusing on the long-term professional development of others.

6. What are the key things to know about leadership?

  • A leader should live the cultural values of their organisation, and be visible and approachable.
  • Focus on achievements and also the long-term. Keep short-term issues in context.
  • You can’t please everyone – confront issues head on and make those tough decisions if necessary.
  • Think consciously about your style – is it right for the context you’re in? Is your style transformative or transactional?
  • Political astuteness is important – forget about its negative press.
  • Optimism is key – particularly during these current difficult economic and political times.

(This article was originally published on FreshNetworks on 14th May 2013.)

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