The nature of a good leader

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In a part of the supervisory training my company conducts, we ask the participants to rate the attributes they most admire in a supervisor or manager. They are asked to choose from a list. In five years we have always had the same result, in spite of surveying hundreds of people. Each time, the group picks ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ as the most important attributes.

It is interesting that ‘like’ is on the list but seldom gets a mention. In discussion, the comment is often made that it is difficult or impossible to impose your will over a group and have them always like you. In fact, if you look around the community at the most successful leaders, some of them are quite obnoxious, but well respected.

A supervisor or manager is responsible for the group first, the individual second. This often causes conflict. Consider the necessity to retrench staff during difficult times. No manager likes to do this, but it is often necessary to keep the business healthy. The individual to be retrenched has to suffer for the good of the group. The consideration of the individual’s needs as secondary to the group’s interest often causes great stress in young or inexperienced leaders. A person who is overly sensitive will often fail to take timely action and will not be a good leader.

So, being liked is not very important — it is very difficult to be liked and make the right decisions for the group. What is important is you must be trusted and respected. You earn trust and respect from being disciplined in the communication process. This means devoting the time to listening equally to all the members of the group and then reacting consistently and with integrity.

Personal integrity is so important in a leader, yet so often lacking in practice. How often do you hear ‘I’ll get back to you’, or ‘I’ll look into it’, or similar platitudes. Consider the leaders around you. Some could say these things and you would know that they mean what they say; you know they will follow through. Others will ring bells in your head as soon as they open their mouths because you know, either because of their body language or because of their track record, that they are unlikely to deliver.

Some leaders find looking somebody in the eye and saying ‘no’ nearly impossible. They ‘tap dance’, using fifty words in a response, losing the message partially or completely in order to avoid a conflict. Usually, this behaviour is a simple lack of assertiveness rather than an intention to deceive, but either way, behaviour like this is viewed negatively.

Another common trap is forgetting your commitments. For example; you are busy with lots on your mind, a staff member stops you and asks you if they can take their holidays in October. You figure October is a long way off so without giving it a second thought you say ‘OK’. The staff member hears this as a promise; you forget. Come October they prepare to exit and you try to renege because you have not planned. They see this as a lack of integrity on your part.

You can be as tough as you like as long as you are fair, consistent and live up to the promises people perceive you to have made. You probably feel you are a good communicator. You probably feel you do not break promises or commitments. You probably feel you listen carefully. Why don’t you ask your staff? If they trust you they will give you an honest answer. If not, they will tell you are wonderful. Few good leaders are wonderful.

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