Gill Taylor: What do leaders do that managers don't?

Our management columnist says that five key characteristics define successful leaders

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor

My best-selling book on successful leaders will be out soon: based on 30 years of consulting and working with a variety of excellent, good and sackable leaders, my views are as good as the next Ted Talk American guru – and cheaper.

Successful leaders have five key characteristics.

First, they are never off-duty as leaders, and they scan the horizon. They are not content to stand still – no one can these days anyway. They take time out to reflect and do not get bogged down with the minutiae of operational management. Even if they are operational as well, they know the value of thinking ahead. They are aware of their strategic goals and prioritise them against weekly, if not daily targets. They say "no" regularly.

Second, they set up facilitating environments in which other people can do their jobs to the best of their ability. They do not try to do other people’s jobs, but find ways to check their expert managers are doing their jobs properly. They like to trust people, but have nasty, suspicious minds – at some point they want evidence. If things do go pear-shaped with a manager, they like to forgive but might not forget. Leaders take a coaching approach in conversations with managers and everyone at every opportunity.

Third, they know their own strengths and weaknesses and bring in help as soon as it is needed for a particular task. They are not perfectionists or egoists and have people around them who will challenge them effectively: like the Roman general at his triumph having someone whisper in his ear "respice post te. Hominem te memento", which broadly translates as "don’t get ahead of yourself sunshine; you are only a person, not a god". One common characteristic of all the worst leaders I have known is that they were arrogant and hubristic, and thought they were indispensable.

Fourth, they are emotionally intelligent. Not only do they have a good sense of themselves, but also an ability to read others. They are able to acknowledge feelings and to work through them; they can assess the temperature in the room and deal with it effectively.

Fifth, they show the way and are present when the proverbial hits the fan. Leaders can’t abdicate leadership: they are the ones who lead, show the way and take the rap if it goes wrong. They have to lead the board sometimes, as well as the staff. That means taking risks and upsetting people, but also succeeding and motivating.

Leadership is a journey of improvement, not a fixed state. If you are not a leader yet but would like to be one, start practising. You can be a leader in part of your work or life and start getting in the mindset. Find a person whom you admire as a leader for their emotional intelligence, fast thinking, clear-sightedness or way with people in difficult circumstances – and watch them like a hawk. Try to be with them at difficult moments – they will give you invaluable experience even if you just watch them. And get a mentor.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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