What makes a good leader ?

It has been a week since we all saw the return to the US office of President Obama. Many news commentators have suggested that the last 2 years have been the most ruthless of battles. Let us also not forget about the cost of both Obama and Romney’s campaigns running into billions of dollars. I witnesses some of the debates, the war of words poked like knives. At one point  I questioned how badly researchers (dirt diggers!) were clutching at straws. For example, showing a picture of Romney sitting down on a chair beside a plane on an airport tarmac having his shoes shined. If you look carefully it is a security scanner/wand not a buffing brush that the attendant is holding! Too late, the social media universe went mad on the image and the damage was done!

With Obama’s excellent crowd inspiring accession speech the next day, I wondered at what cost (emotional) this success will take for both leaders.

I wondered what ingredients it takes to become a truly great leader and what is missing today, especially in business and politics.

A few years ago I was working for a firm that was going through rapid change and a massive influx of new staff. The growth was organic rather than through acquisition. The big issue was the need to ensure consistency Just back tracking for a moment, at the time I ran the company’s Projects Division. I joined a team of 4 to perform business consultancy followed by project structuring and delivery, mainly with Infrastructure and applications. After 2 years in the field I was promoted to manage a team of 4.  As Divisional Manager over the next 3 years with some great people, I grew the team to 80 with a regional structure and moved revenues from $0.5m to $20m with an average Earnings Before Interest & Tax value of 12%. I believe that part of our strength was in the unity we had and the dream to set industry leading global standards in best practice. At the time I was not consumed by ego but I admit that the benefits of the company helicopter and parking privileges were fun! I didn’t abuse the responsibility given to me and tried to be non-conventional in my approach, aiming for positivity and employing people that were really good at their roles and more. This was value add and source for lateral thinking when developing or supporting strategy !

Growth came with the need to establish structure and targets. Back then I worked with an external agency to help the company establish consistency in Human Resources (HR). I can still remember the day two fresh faced management consultants walked into my office keen on developing competencies for the company. Over the next 2 hours I suggested 5 levels of skill and a peer-based benchmarking system to assure awarding levels of competence. For example, a Team manager or Administrator could both use the 5 levels (pillars of strength) and dependent on role positive and negative behaviours could be assigned. The levels were:

  • Leadership
  • Commercial
  • Personal Qualities
  • Technical.
  • Job Specific

Each competency level would be set by +2, +1, 0, -1 & -2, the range being from excellent to unsatisfactory. These levels would be set by existing Team Managers & staff working together, hence it being called, ‘Peer-orientated and validated’. These processes were eventually adapted into the company’s recruitment assessment centres, appraisals and I lead the way to recruit graduates. I learnt that structured processes are good for business as soft-skills can be mapped.

However, in recent years new competencies have emerged, for example: loyalty, follow-ship & visioning. They are soft in nature and can help facilitate a team member to consider their value within a firm and how they are perceived. Companies sometimes set-up an ‘Employee of the month’ scheme. I believe that it is a poor device as it fails to celebrate how teams have worked well together. Initiatives need to be rewarded regardless of size. For example, I once read that the Red Arrows value the aircraft hanger cleaner in the same way as their pilots, to remove any ego. The thought is that the team makes a project successful & every contribution is a part of the gears that make the engine work. They share in the challenge to deliver and even if they do not win a contract, they can think back and say that they gave it their all.

The need for New Competencies
Many firms have achieved growth by just finding the a well timed niche. Interestingly, RBL’s posting from earlier this year: cites new competency domains, albeit for the HR professional, i.e:

  • Strategic Positioner.
  • Credible Activist.
  • Capability Builder.
  • Change Champion.
  • Innovator and Integrator.
  • Technology Proponent.

‘Scotty I need more speed’!
Good leaders need to be more than inclusive and open about the issues at hand. They should suggest values that teams or individuals can bring to assure direction. For example, if you’re sailing the Atlantic, as a Captain of the mission you need a great engineer with a positive attitude and one who honestly ‘pulls out all the stops’ and has a diverse set of additional skills – remember Scotty – ‘Captain, I can’t get her to go any faster’ ! Then, just as the star ship is about to buckle, Scotty delivers the results & misses the deadly nebulae or alien ship !

Effective leaders recognise that there are some skills they do not have but can be resident in their teams. Its not about succession management but mission achievement with the tools available. Often extra team skills are ignored in the fear of showing vulnerability or weakness. Scotty did more than just avoid collisions in time, he also enhanced the engine and suggested new ways to make the ship even better.

In last weeks speech Obama suggested that he was back to finish the job he had started. However, much will depend on the teams that support him and the political balance of the senate. We often see leaders as stars yet their support teams such as speech writers, researchers/ analysts and civil servants are the ones that help ‘shine the light’. Often a political mastermind in the team is deployed and the real leader who achieves real results , i.e: not necessarily the guy/girl positioned in front.

Part of the problem of growth or simply inheriting a large organisation is the need to sustain inclusiveness. I remember when my team grew to almost 80 somebody had suggested that they were afraid of talking to the leader. Often behaviours can be misconstrued or perceptions about not being able influence change from different parts of an organisation can develop. Procedures and respecting chains of command is important. However, even flatter organisations can have issues. Often factors such as arrogance and paranoia creep-in. A good leader is able to remain level-headed.

Politics is part of the problem.
Could it be that today leaders are not emotional or honest enough? Ruthlessness is not the route to success as it leaves behind scar tissue. True leaders are humble and leave a resonance of achievement in the hearts they affect. From a Sikh history perspective we see people like Nehru who broke many promises he gave in the 1950s to Sikhs about land rights autonomy. History often gets re-written and distorted. For example, the film Gandhi by Richard Attenborough suggests Gandhi as the main instigator for India’s freedom from the British. The truth is that that the Quit India movement recorded 80% of those giving their lives as being Sikh who assured India’s independence.

Good Leaders are not afraid to challenge what is being passed on as truth. They challenge wrongs and seek justice. In some cases assure reconciliation, for example, in Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Taking another example from Sikh History. The events of 1984 still resonate for Justice in the hearts of Sikhs as the Genocide / Pogroms has seen no one brought to account even though 11 commissions have sat and mulled through the evidence. A good leader would escalate, compensate, memorialize and seek justice against living guilty perpetrators.

That famous Poem – The Leader by Roger McGough

I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Promise? Promise?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?

I love this poem as it shows that we all want to be at the top but when given a chance, little is done due to being overwhelmed.

Categories: 2012, Core Competencies, Leadership skills, Obama


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