Alan's corner: Six characteristics that make a great leader
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Alan’s corner: Six characteristics that make a great leader

Alan’s corner: Six characteristics that make a great leader

Effective strategies and leadership skills go a long way


In the late 80s and into the 90s, the British retail press was dominated by two quite flamboyant names. At that time, George Davies was heading up Next and delivering exponential growth. While sales and profits followed one trajectory, it seemed that his reputation was growing at a faster pace.

The other contender for the airwaves was Gerald Ratner. Ratner took over his father’s business and became CEO of Ratner’s. A publicly listed company, he grew the business very quickly by disrupting the pedestrian jewellery industry, through discounting and offering low-priced merchandise. Then he went down in history for causing one of the biggest corporate collapses in the UK, after describing merchandise in his own stores as “total crap”.

He seemed to enjoy his success a little too much, becoming arrogant and over-confident in his speech to the Institute of Directors, in 1991. After the share value dropped by £500m, he was fired and the company changed its name to Signet. Around that time, we also had Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric, who proudly promoted senior executives based mainly on their ability to maximise shareholder value. That drove a ‘growth at all costs’ culture with CEOs of subsidiary companies competing with each other for Jack’s gold stars.

While Jack was lauded around the world for his great leadership qualities, I’m curious about the welfare of other stakeholders, such as employees, customers and suppliers. Did that culture cause short-term focus linked to quarterly results? Ratner is certainly not the last senior executive to cause a fuss with ill-chosen and poorly-timed utterances.

KPMG recently lost its chairman Bill Michael after he allegedly told his staff on a virtual town hall meeting to “stop playing the victim card” and to “stop moaning” about life during lockdown.

Considering these examples, what leadership style do you admire? There was a time when the masses took their lead from so-called pillars of society. Regardless of whether they exhibited good or poor behaviour, teachers, politicians and other public figures set the agenda.

Life lessons were more often caught than taught as children would mimic their parents’ behaviour. That extended to the workplace where autocratic bosses often ruled the roost. Some team members would admire that behaviour and form the belief that “it’s how you get things done in that company”. And they would adopt that style and perpetuate that culture. Today, while there are still bad bosses behaving in the same way, it just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Employees today are more questioning. Can you imagine the culture in organisations in our modern world that are led by bosses with this kind of attitude? Many team members will feel totally disconnected from that style. Therein lies the dilemma as discomfort, disharmony and poor morale sets in. And that all leads to low productivity, under-performance and high staff turnover.

The leaders’6-pack 
Here are the characteristics that I believe make a great leader. For me, it starts with emotional intelligence rather than great strategic, functional or technical skills. It’s less about the individual leader and more about the team. This is my ‘leaders’ 6-pack’ for developing great leadership strength, and consequently great followership.

1. Humility. Think of yourself less. Recognise that power comes from building trust and role-modelling, rather than talking yourself up. Find opportunities to recognise others. Be authentic, as it is so much more engaging.

2. Empathy. Role model with empathy and passion to build rapport and earn respect. A positive culture of inclusion, supporting and challenging as appropriate will permeate and inspire your team. Develop your team and remove obstacles that prevent them doing their job. In a word, listen.

3. Objectivity. We are all part of something bigger. From societies and economies to supply chains and business ecosystems. Leaders research what’s going on at a macro level and keep up to date.  They look at implications for their own business and influence change, shape purpose and ambition.

4. Core skills. There is a core set of management and leadership skills that are essential to analysing and making good decisions. This also includes having the critical knowledge for the industry you’re in.

5. Communication. Consider how our government heads are communicating key messages right now, such as when hospitality will reopen. From external to internal stakeholders, great leaders know when, how often, in what way and whom they should keep in the loop. Being visible and providing clarity and certainty is essential. Be the rock of consistency.

6. Accountability. You should consult, delegate, empower, build and nurture, but you yourself must show up and take ownership. The buck stops with you as a leader.

The last word 
EQ (emotional quotient) is not just a new management fad. It’s very real and while we all need some, we don’t all have it. Some people are lucky that it is in their DNA and others have learned it. Empathy for example, is an acquirable skill.

I was struck by a piece of research that was conducted by New York based SJR Group since the start of Covid. By scanning six million entries across several digital platforms, they identified the top leaders from the top Fortune 100 leaders. Six women were rated ahead of Warren Buffet, Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos. A not surprising but delightful outcome.

Alan O’Neill is an author, keynote speaker and owner of Kara, specialists in culture and strategy

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