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What makes a good leader?

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We all have that one person in mind who exemplifies the concepts of ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ in our eyes. As I write this very sentence, I think of a few people in my past that have been fundamental to my understanding of leadership roles – in good and bad ways.

Being a leader is more than just unsheathing your micromanagement blade to slay the brief by releasing a good deal of pressure upon your team. In fact, we can argue that that one is the perfect recipe for a huge disaster.

But is there a ‘recipe’, or a formula if you may, to becoming a ‘good’ leader? Is there a way to hone your leadership skills? I’d love to think I’m qualified to answer those questions – but in reality, there’s always something to learn. So, some time ago, I reached out to John Adair, author of The Art of Judgment, published by Bloomsbury and probably already available in your favourite library. If that hasn’t closed down in the past 6 months.

I hope this article will help both those who wish to jump into a leadership role (more on that later) and those looking for a general refresh on the art of leadership.

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Photo by Mike Martin.

What does it mean to be a ‘good’ leader?

No, I’m not going to open this with a philosophical definition of leadership. We can leave that to academics. But you may still want to know what it means to be a great leader.

According to John, ”to be a good leader is essentially to be an effective leader.” Effective leaders guide their groups or organisations to achieve tasks, while co-operating with the team to help make the atmosphere harmonious and productive.

There’s more to the picture than just productivity, of course – for being a leader essentially means to be “a good person skilled in leadership.” Being a ‘leader for good’ is just as important as being a productive leader.

That last sentence may sound a bit obscure, and willingly so – you can truly interpret and experiment with leadership as you please, so long as it fits within your personality.

Creative leaders are no different. An essential quality of being a creative leader is the capability to always be open to new options and possibilities, so that you do not just consider the paths available to you, but also let yourself embrace new inputs.

Break your own schemes and step out of your own comfort zone. As creatives, we should be used to thinking outside of the box and striving for new solutions – and that’s exactly what a creative leader should do.

Can you learn leadership?

One thing is for sure, according to John: leaders should exemplify the qualities required in their teams. If you lead a team of creatives, it just makes sense that you would be a creative person yourself.

It is normal to feel like you want to excel while at work. Most people believe that being a leader means to be ‘among the best’ in your field – which is fair and legit, of course. But being a leader doesn’t mean you should have the most or the best ideas all the time. As a leader, it is important that you work on cultivating the climate that will make your team creative, efficient and successful.

It may sound extremely difficult, but John points out that leaders are neither born nor made. Though we vary in our ‘potential to leadership,’ it is also true that such potential needs to be turned into ability, and this can only come with experience and the help of capable teachers.

“Never write yourself off as a leader before the jury comes in,” John says. “You may find to your surprise that you are finding the role rather fun.”

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You probably can't learn leadership by just reading up on the topic. Photo by Ryan and Emma.

In his book, John has developed a ‘Three Circle’ model with the fundamental functional skills to become an effective leader. These are:

  • Achieving the task;
  • Building the team;
  • Developing the individual.

But these can be further broken down into a fully-fledged skillset for leadership that any leader could refer to during their training:

  • Defining the task;
  • Planning;
  • Briefing the team;
  • Controlling and co-ordinating;
  • Setting and maintaining group standards;
  • Encouraging both team and individuals;
  • Evaluating.

A form of awareness and understanding will be crucial to assessing when the time is right to employ any one of these skills. And that can only come with experience, practice and thought.

Am I fit to be a leader?

One thing is for sure: leadership is not easy. It may be simple to define, almost straightforward to conceive, but it requires self-confidence, self-awareness and experience before it can be put into effective practice.

Humility is an important piece of the puzzle. “The first step is to make sure that you know your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. The key principle is to build on your strengths and starve your weaknesses,” John adds.

The worst leadership sin is arrogance.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be space for self-doubt – in fact, it is normal to fall into the occasional dark pit every once in a while. “The work of building your quiet confidence of a true leader is the work of a lifetime,” John says, and self-doubt will “help to inoculate you against the worst leadership sin – arrogance.”

Arrogance can lead to an excess of confidence, whereas aiming for more humility would be the best way to approach your training in leadership. And humility will lead you to seek external opportunities among your peers, even in other fields of work. As the ol’ mantra goes, there is always something to learn.

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Photo by JSR Agency.

When should I apply for a leadership role?

As cliché as it may sound: whenever you feel ready. John advises in favour of thinking of leadership as your second vocation. Master your first vocation (your work, your interests, your professional skills), then focus on leading others. In some cases, being a leader is no different than being a teacher, and it is only after years of study and practice that you can begin teaching your own skills to others.

It will be partly a matter of trusting your peers’ judgment, but it is also you who decides when you are ready to jump into a leadership role.

Whatever and whenever you choose, do not take it lightly. It may be one of the most life-changing choices of your career, and existence.


John Adair is the author of The Art of Judgment and more books on leadership, published by Bloomsbury Business. Header image: AKQA.
 

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