Qualities of great leaders

Leadership has transformed over the past two decades, writes Andy Brown, and bosses should be trying to balance soft skills and hard skills

The definition of strong leadership has changed. With huge societal, cultural and business evolution over the past 20 years, and exponential change in the past two years, leaders who have demonstrated traits such as humanity, humility, listening and transparency have thrived.

These types of leaders create huge amounts of goodwill among their employees and build trust in their leadership teams, both of which are key drivers for morale, engagement, productivity and adaptability.

As we navigate the future of our businesses, our research shows that human traits will continue to be hugely important. They will be as critical as the harder skills of leadership capability and competence. In fact, the combination of both will create the approach that is now necessary for future success.

A balanced leadership approach

Leaders that have successfully led their organisations through challenging times have had a clear focus on continual engagement with vision and strategy – however fast-changing that may be. They have also demonstrated a core, common set of leadership behaviours that put them in the best position to lead into the future.

These behaviours are rooted in human criteria as much as business focus. Future leaders must have the human skills to continue this engagement, communicating with and connecting to employees, so that people at every level are engaged to play their part in driving future success.

Human qualities of the future’s great leaders must include:

The ability to listen authentically. While many leaders excel at communicating in ‘broadcast’ mode, those who are best positioned to lead in the long term have switched heavily into listening mode. Showing that you are interested in – and take seriously – the views of your colleagues, peers, direct reports or your most frontline employees leaves a huge and lasting impression, and encourages long-term engagement. Leaders must also listen to their customers and communities to be able to respond to quickly to changing trends, behaviours and issues.

Communication and clarity. When communicating out, don’t forget the power of simple and direct. A lack of authentic communication is the biggest underlying factor in the lack of trust in leaders. Be open, even about hard truths and tough messages and be prepared to say when you don’t have all the answers. In both tough times and good, you can’t over-communicate – and employees will be more willing to listen the more you talk to them.

Honesty and transparency. Being totally open and honest is the key to retaining trust and commitment, particularly in times of change.  You may be asking people to do things differently in the future, such as they way they work (from home, or in a hybrid model for example), and you may be asking them to do things for different reasons. Being honest about why is much more likely to bring people with you.

Looking after your people. Looking after your employees, customers, clients, communities and stakeholders shows a depth of purpose and real EQ among leaders. This creates a stronger sense of team and galvanises employees around a bigger purpose. And it’s critical to remember all of these people are individuals. Many organisations treat employees as one amorphous lump, but smart leaders recognise that their individual team members all have their own strengths, needs and concerns, and motivate and communicate accordingly.

Empathy. Demonstrating empathy is one of the most attractive qualities a leader can have. It helps hugely in building positive relationships at work and produces more effective collaboration. What’s more, empathy breeds empathy. Leaders with strong empathy are over five times more likely to have teams working under them who demonstrate the same quality to other stakeholder groups –their own teams, their customers and other teams within the business.

Humility. The best leaders consider themselves to be students more than experts.  They are willing to learn and keep learning, regardless of their status. This shows humility, as well as demonstrating that even at the most senior level, individuals can be educated. The message to employees is clear: great leaders are adaptable, open and willing to embrace new ideas. Most importantly, though, this approach is vital for innovation and growth.

Managing performance in the moment. People want feedback on how they are doing, good or bad. In the same way recognition for a job well done can have a powerful effect, managing poor performance ‘in the moment’ is equally crucial. Immediate feedback tends to be better delivered and more memorable when given by leaders on the spot, with careful thought put in to not making it a public event.

Fairness. Perceptions of a fair workplace are a differentiating factor for the highest performing leaders.  This is characterised by factors such as a lack of office politics and leaders and managers not having ‘favourites’ within teams. Exceptional leaders share their power and even their status: they are prepared to roll up their sleeves and work alongside their people, which directly connects them on a personal level.

A new leadership framework

Traditional leadership frameworks – typically based around big picture thinking, results focus, building high-potential, inspiration and innovation – are no longer enough on their own to drive success in the new future. They also aren’t capable of providing the short-term adaptability and agility that is needed to navigate through a daily-changing business landscape.

Across all sectors, and in all types of roles, we have shifted how we work, how we manage, how we engage and how we lead. Expected leadership behaviours therefore need refreshing, and the factors on which we select leaders, promote them and reward them must also shift. Leaders themselves need to be able to make mistakes and change direction while maintaining trust and confidence.

Those leaders who successfully steer their organisations over the coming years will retain all of the harder business capabilities from the past. But they will also excel at the ‘softer’ skills that have come to the fore in recent times.

Now is the time for leaders to take time to assess themselves, to choose to behave differently and to build a culture in which a high-performing, balanced organisation can thrive: one which equalises strategic business focus with real, open humanity.

Dr Andy Brown is the CEO and co-founder of ENGAGE.

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