Ian Lawson: Moving leaders from good to outstanding

There are several characteristics that separate the good from the outstanding leaders, writes the co-lead for leadership development at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness

Ian Lawson
Ian Lawson

What does it take to elevate a leader from "good" to "outstanding" and how can charities ensure their leaders are among the best?

In 2010, the Work Foundation conducted qualitative research to unearth the detail behind high-performance leadership. Its research highlighted clear differences between good and outstanding leaders, and the key difference was that outstanding leaders taking a systemic, people-centred approach to leadership. But what does this mean?

The research found that outstanding leaders think and act differently from their peers. They believe that people are the only route to achieving sustainable performance, purpose and meaning in an organisation and that leaders have a vital role to play in influencing the performance of others.

It also found that the behaviour of outstanding leaders is governed by three principles. The first is that they think and act systemically – outstanding leaders are mindful and reflective. They always look beyond the immediate task in hand and see opportunities to improve processes or give people more responsibility so they can develop. Outstanding leaders also seek ways to build the confidence and competence of colleagues because they know this will underpin sustainable performance.

The researchers also found that outstanding leaders see people as the route to performance. With good leaders, people are one factor among many that need attention. But to an outstanding leader, people are the only route to achieving sustainable performance – they spend significant time and energy focusing on people and create a supportive climate where people can develop and innovate freely.

Just as the famous female US Rear Admiral Grace M Hopper said: "It is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission." Outstanding leaders would rather trust people to make a decision even if it turns out to be the wrong one, rather than fail to try.

According to the research, outstanding leaders share the problem but don’t brief the solution. They are motivated to achieve excellence, but they understand that they cannot create this on their own. They adopt a coaching style of leadership to develop confidence and capability in others; they don’t tell people what to do, but instead encourage them to come up with solutions. Outstanding leaders encourage people to explore a problem, rather than brief the solution, because they know that most of the time people have the answers.

Outstanding leaders also focus on the positive. In meetings people too often reflect on what went badly, but outstanding leaders look at what went well and how success can be replicated and improved upon.

Outstanding leaders are authentic to their leadership roles. Like all of us, they might wake up in a bad mood or feel under the weather on occasion, but when they get to the office they focus on the needs of their colleagues rather than calling in sick or behaving irritably and indulgently. Foremost in their mind is their role as a leader and what message this will send to their teams.

Ian Lawson is the co-lead for leadership development at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness, Cass Business School.

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