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The art of good leadership

Written by: Dawar Hashmi is director of executive search at Penna
Published on: 24 Feb 2022

‘You need to move on from being a manager and become a leader.’ Who’s heard that feedback before? What exactly does it mean, how do we become good leaders and is it something we can learn? And what’s all this talk about ‘vision’ and ‘values’ being critical to leadership?

In my experience this is a subject that suffers from a lot of hype as well as nonsense. A lot of small words with big connotations as well as “what the hell has that got to do with it?” One opinion on the subject may differ from the next, but history is abundant with examples of great leaders who have had a dramatic impact. Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, William III, Joan of Arc, Alfred the Great, Wu Zetian, Malcolm X, JFK – can we bottle what these great leaders had and apply it to ourselves today?

Well, the good news is that you don’t have to be perfect to be a good leader. You need to just fit the requirement of the situation. Churchill was phenomenal during wartime but experienced a different outcome in times of peace.

There is no magic formula. For me, there are two clear definitions of leadership – firstly  to be a true leader you need to have followers; people need to be motivated and inspired to follow you. Secondly, leadership can happen at various levels in an organisation – it is not exclusive to any particular position.

At a recent forum event hosted by the national Diversity in Local Government Leadership network, a black 14-year-old girl had an entire room full of local government senior officers in awe of her. They talked about her for days after the event and spoke of how she inspired them. She held the soft power and at that moment she demonstrated leadership.

Henry Kissinger provides an interesting definition: ‘Leadership is about taking people where they would not have got by themselves.’ It is true that many people need good leaders to provide them with coaching, mentoring and support so that they can accelerate and develop their skills and ultimately their careers. However, that definition presumes that the people want to get to where they are being taken. In our world, managers in local authorities may be put into situations by other people in positions of influence…but do they actually want to be there?

Not every head of service wants to relinquish their operational responsibilities and adopt a more strategic approach. Leadership needs to be more reciprocal.

There is a consistent set of actions that effective leaders have to follow within any organisation. These can be commonly found in the list of competencies in any person specification for a senior position, but in summary they cover ideas, people and action. Most competency-based interviews will focus on finding the people who have a clear idea of how they are going to make a difference and what their plan is in order to make that happen. Sounds simple enough but I can tell you that most managers don’t see this and even fewer put it into practice. Have you ever had the experience of reporting into a ‘leader’ who will not stop micromanaging?

Recent research tells us that apart from basic competencies and actions the most effective leaders possess one thing that others don’t have – the right mindset. They think differently. And then ultimately behave differently.

What people want from leaders is a set of leadership behaviours. Those behaviours do not come out of nowhere, they come from the way you think. During Penna’s aspirant CEO programme – Aspiring Chief Executives – we’ve discussed how on a good day we can all exhibit the mindset of a leader.

The best leaders keep this mindset on bad days too. We also talk about how everyone can learn to lead and indeed to lead better. On several occasions candidates have said to me: ‘Leaders are born, not made.’ This implies that they themselves may be introverts and won’t have the charismatic personality that seems to be a requisite for a leadership position.

I explain that leadership is based on skills that can and should be learnt. We will all experience good and bad role models throughout our career and our learning never stops. Moreover, you don’t have to be the perfect leader – you need to be effective. And you can do this by building on your strengths.

There is also a misconception that, if you are a leader, you need to stand tall and alone. We are seeing a move away from the traditional, heroic, almost dictatorial style of leadership to one which is more inclusive, distributed and collaborative. Modern leadership is less Genghis Khan and more Jurgen Klopp.

I’m also often asked by candidates who I am coaching to define the difference between management and leadership. There will be nuances and subtle differences in context but overall, I try to explain how leadership inspires a shared vision and management implements and maintains. A good leader will be forward looking, a visionary if you like. A good manager will be monitoring results and plans.

At Penna, we are proud to sponsor the prestigious awards for Chief Executive of the Year as well as the Senior Leadership Team of the Year for the The MJ Awards 2022. As judges we look for exceptional people and teams who refuse to accept the status quo; who strive to make a difference for themselves and their organisations.

If you want to lead, you have to make a difference.

Dawar Hashmi is director of executive search at Penna