What Makes An Exceptional Leader?
Anyone can call themselves a “leader” and exert power and dominance over others, but this doesn’t mean they have the qualities that inspire greatness in others. We all know an exceptional leader when we see one, from Martin Luther King through to Winston Churchill. Such leaders stand out in history as driving forces for positive change, arousing passions and inspiring excellence. But what are the building blocks that create exceptional leadership?
They can be broken-down into the following five key qualities:
Humility – Traditionally, leaders have relied upon their power, or ‘positional authority’, to make things happen. This type of leadership is obvious throughout history, from Saddam Hussein through to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. There are still some business leaders who naively believe that it is necessary to exert their position of authority to get things done. Typical attributes include an authoritarian approach, leading by decree, imposing change and taking responsibility.
However, those with ‘influential’ and not ‘positional’ authority are the ones who can truly make things happen. Influential leadership is about exercising humility and being collaborative, embracing change, giving responsibility and leading by example. Of course, empower and support your people, but then get out of the way!
Exercising humility is the future of leadership as using power to lead will no longer suffice. By achieving inﬂuential authority, leaders will ultimately have more engaged, more productive people.
Passion – The word ‘passionate’ is over-used in business. Every other CV gushes about how passionate the applicant is about their field of business or job role. The reality is that genuinely passionate business professionals are few and far between, and truly passionate leaders are even rarer. However, when a leader who exudes passion is encountered, they are never forgotten! These leaders believe in their companies, their people and products/services 100 per cent and inspire today’s workforce. People want to follow them, to emulate them and to be ‘known’ by them. Passion is therefore the very foundation of a successful leader.
Putting their people first - When a leader understands the motivations and priorities of their people, they are better equipped to lead and inspire. Those leaders who can recognise their workforce’s struggles and do something to ease them, are the ones who can be classed as ‘exceptional’ and will inspire great work in others. Richard Branson is a strong advocate of a good work-life balance and in a recent interview with MediaPlanet said “I truly believe that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your business.” This approach is the mark of a first-class leader. The customer experience will never exceed the employee experience.
Vision - Leaders who have visionary ideas, which change or shape the future, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, inspire happy and engaged employees. And when employees are happy with their leader, they are more likely to provide great customer experiences. Of course, not everyone can be the next Bill Gates, however, it’s important for leaders to prove that they aren’t afraid to invent new ways of doing things or remould existing ideas. To do this, leaders shouldn’t be afraid to keep asking “why?” and importantly “why not?”. Questioning the current status quo and imagining alternative ways of doing things are key to bringing about visionary change.
A giver of recognition – The act of appreciating others, otherwise known as ‘giving recognition’ is all too often ignored when looking at the make-up of a great leader. In fact, those leaders who effectively recognise others accelerate employee engagement and performance. This is because when people are effectively appreciated and recognised at work, they feel an increase in value which leads to greater drive and determination, better work relationships, stronger connections to their organisations and increased productivity.
Ensuring that all recognition is ‘values-based’ leads to profound results because by rewarding and recognising the ‘right’ behaviours, this encourages those behaviours to be repeated. Therefore, be clear on the values that are important in your culture and shout about those you catch doing the right things. The outcome is engaged, loyal and high performing people ‘doing the right things’ to make the company great. The ability to give recognition effectively should therefore not be underestimated.
The future of leadership
Business leaders can no longer rely on the chain of command to drive their power. The days of a business leader exerting their ‘positional authority’ to get things done are numbered as people no longer stay with companies that expect obedience rather than earn respect. The future of leadership requires a humble outlook, passion, being ‘in touch’ with those around them, a visionary approach and an understanding of the importance of recognition. Together, these qualities inspire acts of greatness in others, turning average leaders into truly exceptional ones.
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Robert joined O.C. Tanner in 2014. From luxury retail at Harrods to Premier League football with Fulham Football Club, Robert's HR career spans more than twenty years. This, combined with his operational experience, gives him a real passion for creating a workplace culture that truly helps people thrive every day.