What is Leadership?

Dr Yanos Michopoulos, Director of Epiphany Enterprises, and an Institute of Directors’ Course Leader on “The Director’s Role in Leading the Organisation”, advises UK company directors about successful business management, strategy development, implementation and effective governance. Below Dr Yanos discusses the basics of leadership for CEO Today.

Defining the key characteristics of a great leader always makes for an interesting start of any Leadership discussion. “Great leaders are born, not made”, some would argue, usually citing Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela as examples. Others disagree: leadership involves a range of skills that people can learn, just as they learn various other skills.

Naturally, there are some innate personality traits that might help (e.g. a high EQ score), but most leadership skills can be developed over the time as someone progresses along their professional career.

What is EQ?

The term Emotional Intelligence (EQ) was coined by Professor Goleman in the 90s to describe “the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships”.

According to a 2013 HBR report, our level of EQ is firm but not rigid, which means that it can improve with the right training. Moreover, it has been claimed that successful leaders are characterised by high EQ, not necessarily high IQ scores, e.g. strong intellect and well-developed “hard, professional skills” are necessary, but not sufficient.

Management vs Leadership Skills

During their early and mid-career stages, we all rely on our “hard management skills” for success, evidenced by qualifications and experience. Examples include Project Management, Finance, Operations, Marketing and HR. Some of these may even be required for regulatory reasons e.g. Accountancy or Legal qualifications.

However, as someone progresses up a professional career, there will be situations where experience and qualifications are largely irrelevant.

In a world full of ambiguity and uncertainty, disruption and continuous change, facing political and economic challenges, leaders must demonstrate a vision that guides and inspires their teams as they transform their business. This cannot be done with functional expertise alone.

Professionals, managers and directors in all industry sectors need to develop a range of “soft, leadership” skills, to build multi-functional teams, accelerate change and manage internal and external stakeholders.

Managing this transition from management to leadership is a key challenge for any would-be leader of the future: how best to navigate such a move from the application of hard skills that are necessary and essential at the early career stages, to the so called soft skills, needed for middle to senior executive roles.

Defining Soft Skills

But what are these soft skills and at what stage do they become important?

Michael Watkins called them the Seven Seismic Shifts™ in his framework to describe the capabilities needed in order to become an effective business leader.

For instance, when you are leading a diverse team operating across multiple functions, countries, sectors, projects, or driving the transformation of a business unit – it is these soft skills that take precedence over the hard skills.

It’s the ability to develop a compelling vision, listen to, support and connect with others from different backgrounds, influence them, understand their motivations and get them to work together, that will make the difference.

Many studies – from management consultants, business schools etc. – have tried to define these soft skills more precisely. “Resilience”, “being supportive”, “seeking out diversity”, “focusing on results”, and “looking ahead”, are all behaviours that consistently come up.

Bain, in their “Inspirational Leadership Model”, identified 33 characteristics of great leaders, with “Centeredness” at the heart of all of them – picking up on the current theme of mindfulness in the workplace.

McKinsey add “effective problem-solving” to the mix.

Others include “listening”, “communication and negotiation” and other interpersonal skills. These are all necessary for leading people and for setting strategy and making good decisions.

Professor Goleman talks about the 6 Leadership styles, ranging from more autocratic to more empowering, each applicable for different business situations.

Change: The Common Theme

But a common theme is always the ability to handle – and drive – change.

John Kotter highlighted this in his HBR article many years ago, noting that the leader’s primary role is to help organisations prepare for, and successfully cope with, change. Change involves uncertainty and discomfort that cannot be managed away with “hard skills” – e.g. budgets and plans: Kotter highlights how leaders must apply their “soft leadership skills” to align the whole organisation behind the change.

This is particularly important because as Robert H. Schaffer argues in a recent HBR article, when you think about it, all management is the management of change!

  • If sales need to be increased, that’s change management.
  • If a merger needs to be implemented, that’s change management.
  • If a new personnel policy needs to be carried out, that’s change management.
  • If the erosion of a market requires a new business model, that’s change management.

Costs reduced? Productivity improved? New products developed? Change management.

Leadership Development

But how best get trained and supported in such a transition?

Developing and applying these soft skills is easier if the organisation’s culture encourages it. Firms that successfully develop their leaders make such a transition from “hard professional to soft leadership skills” easy, by creating a culture of openness and empowerment, challenge and support. They enable considered risk-taking and encourage challenges to the status quo, and they expose managers to change early on in their careers.

Last but not least, they have a culture of continuous personal and professional development and they encourage their staff to attend formal Leadership development programmes.

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