What is a strong leader? We often talk about strong leadership but what exactly makes a strong leader? A strong leader is someone who makes quick decisions, someone that people look up to, they act fast and decisively. Strong leaders take no prisoners! Strong leaders are sometimes someone to be feared.
But is that really what strong leaders are? In my book the definition of a strong leader is simply someone who gets the job done. Someone who commands respect certainly, but because of their competence, their empathy, their ability to listen and their commitment to the cause. People follow them certainly, but because of shared values and a sense of belonging.
And in my book strong leaders are balanced.
Have you ever wondered why so few people make great leaders? There are so many words written on the subject of leadership you might be forgiven for thinking anyone can learn to be a leader. But what separates the good from the great and the competent from the inspirational? I think it’s this thing I call balance.
Great leaders are strong but kind.
They are decisive, but they listen first.
While in charge they lift others up. They trust who they’ve put in charge to do the job for them.
They focus on the mission and purpose of the organisation, but they’re also focused on the people within the organisation.
They feel enormous responsibility for the people working for them, but they know when to make the decision to move people on.
They are relaxed when times are tough, and they teach as much as lead.
They allow people to make mistakes, but they insist on the highest standards.
Many leadership attributes seem to be on a spectrum of one extreme to another. Too hard or too soft. Too lax or too strict. Too strong or too weak. But leaders are rarely one thing or another, they are a mix of complex profiles in the same way everyone else is. And that’s what I mean about balance.
A great leader is at ease with themselves. They have the confidence to swing to both extremes when required, but generally are in the sweet spot of this balanced approach. They know when it’s time to be straight and when to relax. They know what is strategically important to the organisation and therefore when to hold the line, and when a little bit of latitude will go a long way.
They know when to keep the pressure on and when a light touch is needed. Above all, they know their people and what makes them tick. A great leader runs an organisation like a great conductor leads an orchestra. A deft touch to know when to bring in the percussion or the strings to give the desired effect. The organisation swirls and eddies around the leader while the leader keeps a firm grip on the direction of travel.
So how do you develop the balance? I do wonder if leaders can learn this balance or are inherently balanced characters. It’s like the question are great leaders born or made?
What I am sure of is that a lot of this balance can be learned over time. There is no substitute for experience when it comes to great leadership. A young talented leader will take your organisation far. But once that talented leader has had a few knocks to take off some of the rough edges their leadership will ascend to unparalleled heights.
Doing the job, making decisions, making mistakes, are all the things that lead you to this experience. Getting things right, getting things wrong and knowing what you did that made the difference is what it’s all about.
Over almost 20 years in leadership positions there are several things I’ve learned that I’d like to share.
There are no bad teams only bad leaders
Great leaders take responsibility for their teams. They delegate authority but not responsibility. If they give somebody a job to do it’s their responsibility to make sure that that person can do that job. And no matter how far that authority has been delegated a great leader maintains the responsibility all the way.
No one comes to work to fail
Despite the fact it might feel like your entire organisation is making a concerted effort to frustrate you, no one gets up in the morning and comes to work with the idea that today will be the day that they finally mess everything up. Knowing this is the case it makes it far easier to understand poor performance and look at it as an opportunity to learn. For you to learn where the process went wrong and for the person at the centre of the problem to learn the correct way to do things.
Everyone deserves respect
It doesn’t matter what role you fulfil in in the organisation if you do your job and everyone else does theirs, the organisation wins. By this reckoning every position within the organisation is of equal importance. Some people may be paid more because their workload is higher, or they have other responsibilities that are more keenly felt, but every role is mission-critical.
Everyone has a voice
Everyone deserves to be heard. Not everyone will have value to add to the direction of the business, but everyone’s unique perspective should be added into the mix of the leaders decision-making process. You’d be amazed at what insight you can gain by chatting to everyone at every level within the organisation. As the leader it’s your responsibility to pick the direction but do it after listening to what others have to say.
The most important person in the world
I work hard to ensure my focus is on the person I’m talking to. I want them to understand that I know how important their role in the business is. I want them to know that I take them and their concerns, their highs and lows as seriously as I do my own. I may immediately move on from the conversation if it doesn’t prove to be of strategic importance. But while I’m having it, it’s with the most important person in world.
Any decision is better than no decision
The worst thing a business can do is stand still. Business get stuck in between decisions sometimes as there seems to be an impossible choice to make, or so many people are involved in the decision-making process it just takes forever to get anywhere. I’ve learned over time not to be so precious. Make a decision, move forward – trust yourself and go for it. If you make a mistake, then you have to learn from it and not make that mistake again in the future. Most of the time it won’t harm the business unduly and you’ll get better and better at making decisions the more of them you make.
Play the long game
Short termism kills businesses. Always play the long game. Milking the business today for everything it’s got is not the way to prepare for the future. Rather take the view that today’s gains come from the work you do to protect the business going forward. Keep your head up and keep looking at the future and plan accordingly. Trust the people in the business to deliver against the plan you’ve put in place. And keep building, keep playing the long game. Then everyone will wonder how you got so far ahead.
The lesson here is that leadership is about balance. What do you think? Have you got a story to share with me that agrees or argues that point? Let me know.