When you think about what it means to be a great leader, I imagine certain people come to mind. There is conventional wisdom in terms of who our highest profile, historical great leaders have been. However, for some time, I have wondered if leadership qualities are universal or situational and, as society has changed, has what leadership needs to be changed with it?
The loss of reverence
Recently I was watching archive footage of an interview with Harold Macmillan. The interviewer, Robin Day was polite and patient, in allowing Macmillan to finish his answers. He posed questions designed to highlight the positive aspects of Macmillan’s policies. Given that the interview was focusing on whether the UK should develop and maintain a hydrogen bomb-based nuclear deterrent, which at the time was highly controversial, it demonstrated perfectly, the reverence with which the office of leadership was held. This is in stark contrast with modern political interviews where the interviewer takes a highly combative approach with interruptions commonplace.
As a society we have lost the reverence once shown towards positions of leadership and we now focus on the individual. We have reached an inflection point where we can see that in every aspect of our lives, effective leadership is something you do with people and not to them. Whether you follow someone or not is a choice and today leaders are chosen. A leader may be a politician or corporate senior executive but a leader can equally be a 16 year old schoolgirl from Sweden. Greta Thunberg has been recognised by Time magazine as a next generation leader and one of the 100 most influential people on the planet. So leadership is now emergent rather than decreed and for that to happen, certain conditions need to be met.
Creating the conditions for a leader to emerge
For people to follow, a leader must build a case for leadership. People need to feel that they are part of something bigger. They need to answer the question, “Why are we here?” Although, in itself, that isn’t enough. In order for people to follow, a leader must create trust and an important factor in this is authenticity.
A leader must be true to themselves and work on the strengths and weaknesses that make them who they are. This is where it is important to show vulnerability. Successful leaders recognise that it is ok to admit they have made a mistake, as long as they apologise and then work hard to put it right.
It is also vital that leaders show their enthusiasm for the task that they are trying to lead people to achieve. People are soon overwhelmed by uncertainty if a leader shows a lack of enthusiasm for a particular project or goal. You don’t need to look far to draw examples of this from our recent political past.
All of this works only if a leader communicates with care and compassion. They must sense the mood and above all, listen.
Finally, to be a truly effective, a leader must reject status. That doesn’t mean a leader can’t be proud of their personal achievements but it does mean that they must be willing to be held accountable, and judged by results.
A final thought
I believe that we are simply custodians of our profession and we should aim to leave it in a better state than it was when we arrived. A key element of this is the ethical responsibility of every leader to mentor, coach and develop future leaders.
Adam Owen is President of the Personal Finance Society and Learning and Curriculum Director at NextGen Planners