How to Be a Great Leader

October 20, 2021

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A Lesson in Leadership

l was in that exact situation about thirty years ago, shortly after starting my first real job.

I’d been sent out in an unfamiliar company car, and for some reason I hadn’t spotted that it was nearly out of gas. By the time it finally spluttered to a halt, I was on a deserted country road, night was falling, and there was no one around to help.

When my phone call was answered, and it was the manager of my team – a senior leader in the whole organization – my heart sank for a moment.

But instead of tearing into me, pointing out how stupid I’d been, or even just handing me off to someone else, John chuckled, told me not to worry, and asked how he could help.

A few minutes later he’d arranged for a local garage to come and refuel the car as soon as they could. And, to save me waiting, he’d set off on his motorbike to bring me home.

Leadership That Lasts

I learned a lot about John’s leadership that night. Over the next few years, he further established himself as a great leader in my eyes – by what he did, but also by the sort of person he was.

And when I listened to our latest Expert Voices podcast this week, I recognized in John’s personal attributes many of the leadership traits mentioned by our guests. The kinds of things that make you remember someone’s leadership three decades on.

Lessons From Expert Voices

Mind Tools Expert Voices is the podcast series where we delve into our 200+ Expert Interviews, to explore a particular question or theme.

In episode four, “How to Be a Great Leader,” my colleague Rachel Salaman gets insights and ideas from experts including Frances Frei, Ashley Goodall and Fred Kiel. They tell her what’s special about the best leaders – and how we can be more like them.

In this snippet from the latest Expert Voices episode, our guests highlight some of the key leadership traits needed in today’s workplace.

A Servant Leader

In my moment of need, John helped. He did that by listening properly to what my problem was, talking to me about what he could do – and then doing it. It didn’t matter that he was way above me in the company hierarchy, or that he had a hugely challenging and time-consuming job. When my call came in, I was his priority.

Leadership professor Sen Sendjaya calls this “servant leadership.” It takes humility, the willingness to admit to your own mistakes, and the commitment to support your people to do their best. “It’s not being inferior, but it’s also not being superior,” Sen tells Rachel in the podcast. Servant leaders know their own strengths and weaknesses. So they can also help others to understand theirs.

Leading by Example

John often deferred to people who were better at something than him. He gave us all appropriate opportunities to grow, and was happy for us to shine.

But he was also very good at the core aspects of his job. Executive coach Ashley Goodall highlights this as a key leadership trait. “You’re following them because they’re really good at something that you care about,” he says of great leaders. “That removes a little bit of your doubt about the future, a little bit of your uncertainty.”

A key part of John’s leadership power was his consistency – another trait mentioned by many of our podcast guests. He was always calm in a crisis, and his down-to-earth approach to decision making meant that we all understood his thinking. We knew where we stood with him, whether it was a minor matter or something that would affect the whole business. In the words of leadership consultant Kate Sweetman, during some turbulent times, he was “one of those rocks you wish you had.”

He wasn’t a pushover, though. He made tough calls when he had to, and held us all accountable in our roles. But he did so in a relentlessly positive way – what Susan Scott calls “holding people able.” He set us high targets, believed that we could achieve them, and his confidence rubbed off.

What’s more, he modeled accountability himself. He was highly visible in his own contributions, but also disarmingly honest if he ever failed to deliver. He encouraged us to be open about our mistakes – like my failure with the fuel gauge – and to learn from them. According to influential author Fred Kiel, too many leaders see that as a show of weakness, when it’s really “… a sign of tremendous strength.”

An Authentic Leader

More than anything, John was real. He shared stories from outside work, took part in social events, and leveled with us whenever he could. Leadership coach Bruna Martinuzzi says that. “… without authenticity or integrity a leader has no credibility.”

And fellow podcast guest Frances Frei, from Harvard Business School, says that authenticity creates valuable trust within teams. “You’re more likely to trust me if you get a sense that I am really in it for you and for the broader group.”

That was certainly true with John. We weren’t friends with him (even if we’d been rescued on his motorbike!). He was still our boss. But we all saw his empathic and supportive behavior in action. It brought us together as a team – firmly behind him as our leader.

Put Your Leadership to the Test

I’ve known other great leaders since John (and some not-so-great ones!). When I think about the best of the bunch, the same defining characteristics keep coming up: humility, consistency, accountability, authenticity. And, perhaps more than anything, the willingness to listen to someone in their moment of need, and the instinct to offer the right kind of help.

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