Tips on Leadership


People are fascinated by leaders. They are talked and read about obsessively. They themselves talk and write about how they do it and how they have learned it. Leadership is about the so-called 'soft' issues of people and behaviour. Yet in our post-industrial high-tech society, leadership - often referred to as the critical competency for the 21st century - seems to be talked about and sought more than ever before. How can this be? The reasoning goes like this:

Change is occurring faster than ever before. Organizations are increasingly affected by events and decisions in other countries and markets. Technology, and global market places have increased the complexity of work and the environment in which organizations operate. Organization structures cannot change fast enough to keep pace. High-speed communications demand high-speed decision-making. These rapid changes in ways of working mean that managers can no longer do the jobs of the people they manage. Those at the top of organizations inevitably lose touch with the technology and expertise of their people. Formal leaders cannot know what is going on in their organizations because of the level and complexity and pace of change. Global competition requires endless creativity and resourcefulness. So controllers who manage bureaucratically will lead their businesses into extinction. Business survival depends upon the willingness of people at every level to take decisions and make changes consistent with the purpose and values of the organization. People must act proactively, influence those around them and behave with courage and persistence. In other words, people at all levels in today's organizations need to demonstrate leadership. In today's world, "leadership" means leading change.

Leaders, writers, and researchers have worked for decades to define and describe leadership, to differentiate it from management, and identify how to develop it. These attempts have been useful although not conclusive because leadership is elusive, depends upon individual character and personality, situation and culture, and in any case our views about it have changed. There are several thousand definitions of leadership in the literature because there are very many different opinions about it. Yet it remains an important and useful focus for improving individual and organizational effectiveness. Although technology has transformed the world of work, it has not transformed human nature. The essence of leadership is grounded deeply in human behaviour, and so the "10 Tips for 21st Century Leaders" given below are different but not fundamentally different from the 10 Tips which might have been listed 1000 years ago. There is a timeless quality about leadership.

10 Tips for Effective Leadership

Act with honesty and integrity.
For the leader, character is at least as important as personality. Surveys show that leaders who consistently demonstrate qualities of character such as honesty are more influential than leaders with the most charismatic of personalities. However, a reputation for honesty cannot be bought cheaply or quickly. The leader must be willing to forgo every single opportunity to gain advantage by lying. Even white lies will harm the person who wants to build a reputation for honesty.

Work hard and complete tasks.
The person who works hard is a more convincing leader than the one who does not. Working hard is different from working long. In fact it is actually not physically possible to work hard and work long for more than a short period. The person who works hard but does not work long will be a more attractive role model and leader than the workaholic who works long but perhaps achieves less.

Practice what you preach.
There are many sayings that reinforce the importance of this advice. "Do what you say; walk the talk; lead from the front; lead by example; actions speak louder than words; by your deeds you will know them, etc." If your words and actions are in conflict, people will believe your actions, not your words and your capacity to influence and lead will be limited.

Plan, then act, then review.
Leaders are expected to take decisions and act. But good decisions require thought, preparation and planning, so it is important to create sufficient time for proper thought to underpin decision-making. Some actions will fail, and it is wise to allow time for review to learn and take remedial action.

Be positive about the vision.
It is commonplace today to state that the leader should have a goal or vision based upon the business rationale. However, this vision will singularly fail to propel people forwards unless the leader has faith in it and can explain positively how the vision will be achieved and how it benefits the organization and its people.

Build self-esteem.
The most effective leaders bring the best out of people and encourage them to achieve more than they thought themselves capable of. This involves recognising that people are all different, and finding out what their real strengths are. It involves encouraging them and building their self-esteem. It also involves refraining from gossip and talking behind others' backs.

Be persistent.
Nothing is achieved without persistence. This quality is greatly admired in others and will win the leader strong support. Persistence in the face of adversity is particularly admired.

Develop skills and knowledge.
Although leadership is at heart an interpersonal process, unless leaders have a good knowledge of their organization and its technology, their decisions may not be sound and their colleagues will be less keen to trust their leadership.

Be visible and build relationships.
You cannot influence people unless you spend time with them. So leaders must be visible and accessible. They must invest time building and maintaining relationships. They must also communicate continuously, listening as much as talking. Even in 2003, the most effective method of communication is still to meet face-to-face. Inviting and taking feedback is as important to the effective leader as providing it for others.

Keep developing.
Today's organizations only thrive if the people in them keep learning and growing. Leaders especially should develop themselves because of the impact they have on the organization's success and for the example it gives to others. They should develop awareness of their strengths and weaknesses by constantly seeking feedback and keep working to develop these strengths whilst devising better ways to manage their weaknesses. They should also learn from other leaders by seeking them as mentors and reading about them.

Leadership may be about the 'soft' issues of people and behaviour, but it is certainly not a 'soft option'. In many ways, the so-called 'hard' issues of targets, budgets, outputs etc are easier to deal with, they are not elusive and constantly changing, nor do they make so many demands on an individual's emotions.

The debate rages long, are leaders born or made? Opinions differ but there seems little doubt that the behaviours and approaches outlined in these Tips for Leadership can be learned, practiced and improved.

DBA has substantial experience in developing and delivering leadership programmes, and is currently contributing eight facilitators to a massive public sector Leadership for Change programme involving over 10,000 participants.