by Andrea Charman

Excellence in leadership

The subject of leadership has engaged organisations and individuals alike, probably more than any other management topic. Every time you visit a bookshop you find another few books on leadership, and the debate continues around what constitutes excellence in leadership and what it is that defines an effective leader. Most people would agree, however, that leadership is a highly complex concept and each individual has their own interpretation. At its simplest, it is about persuading others to commit their energy to achieve a common vision and its associated goals.

So, leadership is perhaps more art than science, and it is often said that leaders do the right things, but not at the expense of the managerial capacity for doing things right.

Questions leaders ask

When it comes to challenges, of any kind, effective leaders will ask themselves the following questions:

  • Did I engage and pick up the challenge?
  • Did I persist and take some learning, regardless of the outcome?
  • Did I quit?

Effective leaders very seldom take the last option – they may shelve it and come back to it, but they don’t quit. This is particularly true when they are dealing with difficult people and can’t do anything about it. Leaders don’t quit; they find some way to deal with and contain the problem.

How can leadership be recognised?

Leadership is like beauty; it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Warren Bennis

As we are learning, defining leadership presents huge challenges; yet most of us feel confident that we recognise effective leadership when we either see or experience it. Our recognition comes after the event. Why? Clearly, it is because we see the results. In this way, we are able to define leadership as ‘getting things done’ and recognise that this happens through and with the support of others. This again suggests that leadership happens in the interaction between the leader and the follower in a specific situation, which is perhaps why we hear so much about both situational leadership, leadership in context, ‘moments of truth,’ and the concept of followership.

Common sense really – all leaders need followers!

And herein lies another critical challenge...

How does a leader gain the permission to lead?

In the traditional directive model, which is anchored in a military-style hierarchy, permission was not essential. In a 21st century world, people have increasing access to information and are aware of their choices, so permission is critical. Potential followers have, in effect, become discerning customers of those who supply leadership.

In view of this, we might now define leadership as a set of qualities and attributes as much as a set of behaviours. Leadership might therefore be more appropriately seen as a process, not a position. Today, all evidence suggests that it is first and foremost about relationship management. People who are excellent at achieving a strong sense of mutuality have a high quotient of relational intelligence. They reach people at a level beyond the rational; they motivate, engage and encourage those with whom they work so that they, too, become prepared to commit their energy. Today’s leaders recruit others to collaborate.

We hear a lot about transformational leaders. This is often linked to charisma. There is no doubt that leadership success is often associated with charismatic figures who command respect and, in many cases, admiration. Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that charisma and respect are not qualities that leaders have; they are rather what other people sense and feel about their leaders. In effect, they are determined by what leaders do and achieve. They are ‘attributed’ qualities.

Perhaps respect is closely associated with emotional intelligence (see EQ in leaders).