The Five ‘Universals’ of Great Leaders?
“You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
I left the Army in 2013 having had an incredible twenty year career. During that time I had the opportunity to lead soldiers in a variety of environments including the most demanding of all – combat. After I returned from Afghanistan I had the great privilege of writing a book called Company Command, the story of the soldiers I led in combat. I also had the opportunity during my career to study the subject of leadership and, of course, be on the receiving end of good (and bad) leadership.
Over the last five years I have been working in the leadership development world, delivering leadership and coaching training to multi-national corporations and charitable organisations. I’ve had the privilege of addressing the US Naval Academy, Boston College in the US, Greater Manchester Police and the European Nuclear Safety Agency. I have lost count of the number of leadership workshops, talks and seminars I have delivered. I have had a significant number of opportunities to tell people what I think but, far more importantly, I have been lucky enough to be able to listen to what they think too.
‘What do great leaders do?’
During every leadership course I have delivered, I have posed a question to the delegates: ‘what do great leaders do?’ I started collating the responses and common themes quite quickly emerged. Over time the same five areas came up over and over again. Whilst people used different words, they were describing the same things.
I have gained great benefit from seeing good leadership from both the Army and civilian perspective and so I offer the following five traits as, perhaps, the ‘universals’ of a great leader. I don’t pretend that these are based on any deep research, or on responses from a scientific cross-section of leaders. But I do think that Army leaders should understand what other parts of society see as good leadership, and recognise what they too should strive towards.
It is worth noting, though, that all of these practices stem from an intimate knowledge of those that you are leading. Every person is different and a leader is best when they understand what each individual in their team does or doesn’t need from their leader. This, perhaps, is the most universal truth of all.
Great leaders are great communicators
Communication is everything; it is the key skill of the great leader. An excellent plan, poorly communicated, is instantly a lesser plan. The great leader is an accomplished communicator in whatever medium they choose to communicate in. They are chameleon-like in their approach; morphing effortlessly from one style to the next, all the while concentrating on the needs of their audience. They understand that the effectiveness of communication is measured by the receiver, not by the deliverer.
Great leaders recognise and reward achievement
The great leader never takes credit for other peoples’ work. They ensure that individuals and the team are recognised for their achievements. They also understand the style that the recognition should be delivered in; a style unique and commensurate with what the team or the individual prefers. Not everyone wants to be brought out front and showered with praise.
Great leaders create a no blame culture
A blame culture stifles creativity and causes people to avoid taking risks. It suppresses the ‘disruptors’ – those that think and look at things in different ways. In a no-blame environment people are not punished for their mistakes; instead the mistake is remoulded into a development opportunity. Sometimes we need to fail in order to learn how not to do something. A ‘fail fast’ environment is the best version of the no blame culture. If you are going to fail; fail fast, learn and then move on. People aren’t punished for failing fast. They are punished for failing slowly or making the same mistakes over and over again.
Great leaders are inclusive of ideas from areas outside of their immediate focus
It’s easy, when under pressure, to be ‘head down’ and focused on the immediate issue. It’s also easy to be dismissive of fresh and new ideas that fall outside of our remit. The great leader knows that the eureka moment rarely happens when and where we expect it. It is often the newest member of the team, the one with the least baggage, that spots the wood for the trees. How often do we do what we have always done, because that was the way that we were shown how to do it? Instead the great leader will look up towards the outliers. They will spot the linkages and connections because that’s where, so often, the novel solution comes from.
Great leaders earn respect rather than feel that it comes with the position
Respect, like trust, is an outcome. The leader has to do something in order to achieve it. Ultimately it is by our actions that we will be judged. The great leader knows that they will have to work tirelessly to get and to keep their team’s respect. No leadership position is won by right. I agree with WO1 (RSM) Spud Armon: the novelty of who you were or what you have done soon wears off. People care about who you are now. Respect is hard earned and easily lost; the great leader knows this. They also know that saying sorry after making a mistake is often the thing that people value the most.
Whilst some great leaders will know these five universals instinctively, most of us will know they have to work at them. The poor leaders just won’t get them; or worse assume that they are already good at them. They are all skills that, to some degree, can be measured and they certainly can be improved. Ultimately though, the great leader knows that these skills have to be invested in. They are perishable; their impact degrades over time if they aren’t refreshed.
The question that you have to ask yourself, though, is which of the five universals can I do better?
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