It's a cliche to suggest that leadership can be hard. And yet it really is because becoming the lead person for a group of people brings with it some very human responsibilities which draw heavily on who we are as people. I think that good leaders, above all else, have learned a great deal about themselves, about what frightens them, what motivates them, what annoys and hampers them and have been able to turn those lessons into their own leadership practise - how they treat the people around them, in other words.
And that is why sound leadership comes in lots of different flavours. There are quiet leaders, loud leaders, instantly inspirational leaders. There are leaders who seem to be brilliant at listening and there are those who are largely followed because of their strident way of expressing their ideas. There is no ‘correct’ formula for leadership but we can say that good leadership makes people want to follow.
So here are some elements that I think distinguishes a good leader, a strong leader, from someone who maybe doesn't do much beyond managing tasks and logistics for their group.
Listening. Progressive leaders know what to pay attention to, which advice to take. That requires them to listen to a wide range of views and thoughts on the way to sorting the wheat from the chaff. A skilful leader will sometimes look like they're not doing much more than listening but as any practise listener will know, there is a lot going on in there when you are really paying attention to somebody, to their thoughts, their words, the words that they don't speak and above all to their feelings. The person who listens the most knows the most about what is really going on in the room. And that has to be a key element of leadership.
Saying yes. A leader who gets into the habit of prematurely rejecting input that don't fit with their model of how things are soon realises that the queue of people bringing ideas to them becomes very short. A wise leader will realise that sometimes even the most unsuitable idea might actually trigger a very suitable alternative.
Pretending to understand. The quickest shortcut that a leader can take to earning commitment from their team is to understand them totally. This requires more than ordinary listening to facts and figures and knowledge of different people's areas of expertise and what motivates them. The leader must understand how their people actually feel about things because it is their feelings which determine, to a large extent, what they will and won't do, what is easy and difficult for them, what will make them stay or leave.
Flexibility. I think that stubbornness is a vital quality that strong leaders turn on themselves as a way of holding themselves to account, keeping going in difficult times and being consistent in how they work with people, no matter how they might be feeling or what distractions they may have. But stubbornness inflicted on the people around us rarely attracts respect. In fact it's a turn off because very soon people come to believe that there is no point in discussing something with their stubborn leader and without discussion the leader is left high and dry in an intellectual desert only populated with their own narrow thoughts. Flexibility in thinking and the acceptance of a differing viewpoint are critical elements of keeping people interested in following you.
Advice. There is an expression that advice is worth as much as it costs to give. Leaders often give in to the temptation to dole out advice in the mistaken belief that people will simply be able to act upon it as soon as they hear it. In reality even when we welcome a piece of advice which we have asked for we all know that it is devilishly difficult to act upon it. Most of the time, however, when people ask for our advice they actually want a thinking partner more than they want an adviser. We should consider using up their ideas before we look into our own very different experiences for a secondhand piece of knowledge to pass on.
If I had to suggest what all this boils down to I would zero in on leadership being about having self-belief, self-awareness and an ability to turn down the noise in our own head to enable us to pay attention to the people who need our leadership and to the ideas that they bring with them that will help us to do that job well.