What makes a good leader?

13 November 2017

Gerry McGivern, Professor of Organisational Analysis, reveals what makes a good leader and how you can start to acquire the skills to become one.

Leadership is generally defined in terms of being able to exercise influence. However, we first need to distinguish between ‘a good leader’ and ‘good leadership’ because the latter may involve multiple leaders.

People have different skills, strengths and weaknesses. So, effective leadership often requires ‘distributed’ or ‘team’ leadership, involving multiple people with complementary skills, expertise and characteristics, who can support one another to achieve a common goal.

Good leadership also depends on context. The organisation, its circumstances, objectives and problems all affect the kind of leadership required. An underperforming sales team requires different types of leadership from research scientists.

Having said that, there may be some generic characteristics of a good leader. Good leaders usually have a sense of vision; they know what they want to achieve personally and for their organisation, and can communicate it in a way people understand and respond to positively.

Also, good leaders are often self-aware, with emotional and social intelligence, resilience and energy, but they can also be tough when needed and are to be able to read and respond to organisational politics.

Can anybody learn to be a leader?

There is an unresolved debate about the extent to which nature or nurture creates leaders. Some leadership characteristics are innate and some can be developed, so most people can improve their leadership skills and there may be moments when anybody can engage in significant acts of leadership.

Bad leaders, even those with a track record of success, can have blind-spots and be unable or refuse to see major changes in their market or problems in their environment.

Why didn’t Arthur Andersen’s leaders spot or report fraud at Enron? How could Kodak’s leaders miss the rise of digital photography? How did RBS go from being the world’s fifth largest bank to near collapse within a few months?

Bad leadership can result in demotivation and the loss of talented staff. So, leaders need to remain vigilant, open-minded and listen to their staff - particularly when they’re seeing and hearing things leaders would rather not want happening!

How can I develop my leadership skills when I'm in such a junior position?

It is difficult to show leadership skills and learn them unless you are thrust into a leadership position, but there are ways of developing them and alerting superiors and potential employees that you have what it takes to step up to senior roles.

First, allow yourself to make (non-fatal) mistakes, while reflecting on your experiences of doing so and taking responsibility for your own life.

Try new things, live and work overseas, and ask for opportunities. Get training, coaching, mentoring, do personal development work or find other formative spaces where you can safely reflect on and discuss what’s going on for you.

Think about senior colleagues you admire or would like to emulate later in your career and then talk to these people, watch and learn from them, or even ask them to mentor you.

Finally, look after yourself to remain resilient and avoid burn out. Exercise, eat and sleep well, take time out to reflect, meditate, spend time with family and friends, rest, take holidays and do the things you love and are most important to you. And remember, apparently nobody wishes they had spent more time at work on their deathbed!

Gerry McGivern teaches organisational behaviour on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London). He also lectures on Leading the Knowledge Based Organisation and People and Organisations on the suite of MSc Business courses, while teaching Changing Organisations on the Undergraduate programme.