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Take me to your Leader

Much has been written about leadership and what makes a good leader. There are various populist-media examples, portrayed in films, exalted in the press, and then vilified for failing up to to the photo-fit image they probably never signed up to. It sells papers, video-games and movies.

There is the testosterone filled muscle man leader. He is tall, strong and agile – or at least his avatar or stunt double is. He is brave – some would say foolish – beyond reason. He takes risks which always pay off, because that is how the script has been written. He is Clint or Arnie or Brad and rarely Bill, Brian or Dave. He is entirely fictional. He is male.

In the real world we also admire a risk-taker, but only when they are winning. And real life is a badly written script where success is elusive, where the unexpected lurks round every corner, and where we – annoyingly – only have one life.

The other fabricated leader is the one who is all-wise and all-knowing. He or she is clinical, considered, impossibly intelligent and possessed with intimate and detailed knowledge beyond the capabilities of even Wikipedia. They are also entirely fictional. In case we need proof, exhibits A-Z:- the the current leaders of the euro-zone, the G8, FIFA or your local Town Council. We imagined Boris, Theresa, Maggie and Tony into these roles, but in the end they each failed our audition. It was wishful thinking. Look what they all did to our world.

So what does make a good leader? I have endured many seminars, training courses and after-dinner speakers on the subject of leadership. Alasdair Campbell was the latest – he had 10 secrets, which can remain secret. Ellen McCarthur made a great point about success being about not having any pre-prepared excuses for failure. Ranulph Fiennes equated – for me – leadership with being borderline insane, as he showed gratuitous slides of his frostbitten extremities. At least he was honest – shockingly so.

A more recent training course I enjoyed was more sober-minded. It was a distillation of extensive empirical evidence of what people said had made a good or a bad leader. It was based on real life leadership. Not world leaders or business magnates, but the common-or-garden leader. Your middle-manager, your shop owner, your local MP, your vicar, your esteemed boss.

So here is my distilled unwrapped version. The first three are about character, the next three about relationships.

1. Integrity – One seminar had this as the number one attribute wanted from leaders – and one that is often so sadly lacking. It means being true to yourself. Not pretending to be someone else. Not behaving as you think leaders should behave. It means being honest, sticking to your principles at all times, not compromising when the going gets tough or when your popularity is at risk. It is leadership not based on position, knowledge, charisma or power, but based on authenticity. This leader is someone we can trust.

Democracy, it could be argued – does not encourage this. This is where Gordon Brown went wrong – trying to be someone he wasn’t, to appease the media (oh, those false smiles!) and where Nick Clegg clearly failed with promises broken at the alter of political appeasement. Ironically, if only they realised it, sustained integrity is very popular and may just get you elected….

2. Courage – Without entirely contradicting myself, a leader does have to be something of a brave heart. But this is about taking intelligent risks, not being overly-cautious or over-sensitive, but neither being being reckless or plain stupid; lest into the valley of death we lead our 6 or 600. Courage in a leader can generate great commitment and loyalty in their followers – so is to be used with extreme care.

3. Vision – A leader has to be taking people somewhere, somewhere better. It has been said by someone cleverer than me that a manager works within the system; a leader works on the system. The destination is clear and simple, even though the route may be complex, rugged and littered with hurdles and pitfalls. The destination is shared – not secret. It is to everyone’s benefit – not just the leaders. It is worthwhile, laudable and achievable, but not easily achievable.

4. Concern – The head-and-shoulders number one requirement of a leader on the latest training course I went through, based on considerable research, was; “shows genuine Concern for Others”. This is not about asking your “staff” how old their kids are once a month, or feigning interest in their well-being whilst idly checking your Blackberry or “can I just get this, it’s important” (hang on, I thought I was important?). It is genuinely wanting the best for each member of your team, listening to them, looking out for them, coaching them and helping them succeed. If a leader does this, genuinely, they will find himself with a loyal, committed team who will, in return, do almost anything and everything for them.

5. Trust – A good leader will trust others to lead. They will be confident and humble enough to realise that others have skills, knowledge and experience which they do not have. A smart leader appoints people into his team who are better than they are at certain things, people who are different, even difficult. Beware the leader who promotes sycophantic protégés in his or her own image. To do so is arrogant and actually rather foolish. Such a team will have gaping chasms in it.

6. Openness – This covers a multitude of virtues. They will be accessible. Their office door is not always open, because they will sit in a desk next to us. They will be honest. They tell you things as they are, warts and all, including uncomfortable things about yourself. And they will good communicators. They don’t keep secrets – knowledge is not power, it belongs to us all, just like the air we breathe.

As I write this feel I need to add a seventh. And, hey, seven is always a good number. No 7 is humility.

7. Humility. Beware the leader who thinks he or she has arrived, who no longer needs the people they have stepped on or over to get to the top. Who starts to believe their own publicity. We have all seen them – and may have had the misfortune to work for them. They become dictators. People will follow them for a while. But underneath they know they cannot sustain their self-appointed invincibility. So they stop trusting people, start to keep secrets, stop caring about others, ditch their integrity, become cowardly in their decision-making.

Their deluded vision becomes their own survival and promotion. Power corrupts. And ultimately they fail, usually in scandal, ignominy or humiliation. So farewell Napoleon, Hitler, Himmler, Hussain, Gadaffi, Putin, Trump or Mussolini. How did you die, and how are you remembered?

A good leader will have a far better epitaph, and more importantly will make a difference to the world, not so much by what they achieve or do, but because of who they are. And that may just include having a genuine concern for others, courage, integrity and a very large dose of humility.

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