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Written by Ian Asworth


I challenged myself to write an article on “leadership” because I don’t think that it’s something that’s very well understood, and it’s a passion of mine.  However, as I started to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) I quickly realised that, even allowing for my rants and pet peeves, it’s a subject that can’t be dealt with in a single piece of writing.  People have made books out of the subject, so that should have been obvious.  What I tried to do instead is present a summary – a quick flirt with a bunch of leadership topics, into which I can go into more detail in future newsletters.  I hope this provides a bit of food for thought for now.


Great Leaders


Think of the best leaders.  Business, political, spiritual, it doesn’t really matter.  Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst, Sir Richard Branson, Dalai Lama, Ginni Rometty…the list goes on, and I’ve probably captured at least one above who would make your list.  What makes them great leaders?

The best leaders guide, coach, and influence, rather than instruct, dictate, and mandate.  They call people to action and, through their words and actions, inspire people to deliver.  They enable a positive culture of collaboration and connection, encouraging risks and embracing “failure” (for there is no such thing) as lessons learned.

“I have not failed.  I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” – Thomas Edison


A common mistake


So there are many different qualities in a great leader, but one that is rarely on the list is technical expertise.  Richard Branson doesn’t know how to build planes, Ginni Rometty doesn’t know how to build laptops.  Why would they?  They’ve got brilliant people to do that.

The best specialists do not necessarily make the best leaders.  Too many great technicians think that they can get by doing the same thing they did to get them to that position, but leadership is a whole new role.

Businesses that recruit specialists into leadership roles are doing themselves, their people, and their organisations a disservice, which can have catastrophic results.  It’s not hyperbole to say that the wrong person in a leadership role can destroy culture and irreparably damage team spirit.  Lose your people and you lose your business.

How often have you seen a leadership job advertised with the essential requirements listed as “Experience in managing [more on “managing” in a minute] teams, 10 years’ experience in X”, with “X” being the specialist area they’ll be leading?  This is completely the wrong way around.  We need to make sure that “X” = “leadership”, and only then will we be starting to recruit people whose priority is leading people.

Another common mistake is the belief that you have to be some kind of senior manager to be a leader, but being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean being a CEO, a GM, or a President or Vice President.  More than that, leadership has absolutely nothing to do with titles.  Influence can happen at any level.  Passion can happen at any level.  Drive and determination can happen at any level.  Colleagues and team mates will quickly pick up on that and look to you at times of need.

“Leadership is…about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine” – Chris Hadfield


Leadership V Management


This is where I return to “managing”, and the difference between that and “leading”.  These words are often used interchangeably, but they’re really two separate skills.  The simplest way I’ve come across to explain the difference is that you manage things, you lead people.  Your day is managed, the activities people do are managed, your time is managed.  None of these things inspire people to go the extra mile, to be innovative and excellent.

The ability to treat people the way they want to be treated, to talk to them in an open and honest way, to connect people to your words and your actions – that’s the basis for leadership.  There’s nothing wrong in being a good manager of course – it’s a skill in itself.  But people don’t follow managers, they follow leaders.

“Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things” – Peter Drucker


Always learning, always leading


When a sportsman reaches the peak of their chosen sport, they don’t stop practising.  When a medical professional becomes a surgeon, they don’t stop researching.  Likewise, when a leader becomes a Chief Executive, or whatever they feel is their ultimate position, they should never stop learning.  It can become fatal to a career, certainly stagnating, to slip into a comfort zone.  The best leaders recognise that comfort is the enemy of learning and development, and will push themselves into situations that don’t come naturally to them, or into fields that they’re not masters of, to get ahead, challenge their skills, and keep growing.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”  John F Kennedy

I’ve only scratched the surface of leadership, and not even begun to discuss how a leader sets direction, strategy, vision, and values – the heart of a successful company of any size.  Nor have I covered the behaviours of successful leaders and challenged the extrovert/introvert misconception about leadership personalities.  More to come in the new year.


About Ian

Ian is an alumnus of the Institute for Strategic Leadership (LP38) and is always keen to talk all things leadership.  Get in touch with him here to find out more about how time spent working on strategy and leadership would benefit your business.