What to look for in a leader

What to look for in a leader

Harry S Truman, 33rd president of the United States, once declared that “in periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better”.

Indeed, a business is arguably only as good as the person (or persons) that sits at its head. Becoming a strong leader isn’t an overnight process either and people take years cultivating the attributes they need to be at the top table.

But what happens when it’s time for leaders to leave? After all, it’s not as simple as replacing old for new, like a cog in a machine.

To ensure continued success, businesses need to plan who will take over when the ‘old guard’ steps down.

Succession planning is integral to any organisation, enabling a company to identify suitable talent – either internally or externally – to replace key staff and ensure a business runs smoothly.

To create such a plan successfully, it is important to determine the qualities needed in a leader.

While the specifics of this vary between industry, there are a series of broad qualities that are traditionally identified as been essential in those at the top.

The theory of leadership

What makes a leader is a contentious issue that affects everything from politics and business to entertainment and sport.

There are many schools of thought on leadership, but the most dominant is often the militaristic approach. Writing in HR Bullets, Joseph S Nye, eminent American political scientist and University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard, explained that the role of heroic leadership in war has come to characterise many views on the matter. In the past the male warrior leader was essential for tribes to survive and the depiction has continued in modern times, causing people to over emphasise command, control and hard power, Nye believes.

However, there are other ways to lead and achieve desired outcomes. These include the softer powers of attraction and persuasion, and hard payment.

There has also been speculation that a leadership gene exists or socio-biology plays a role, but there has thus far been no scientific proof of this.

One thing is for certain according to Nye – context plays an important role. He explained in the news portal blog that some situations call for autocratic decisions and some need the opposite. Consequently, it important for leaders to be able to transfer their skills across all contexts. This has been seen in figures like Dwight Eisenhower, who was a successful military leader and president.

Broadly, there are some characteristics businesses can safely prioritise when creating their leadership pipeline.

Sunitha Narayanan, certified career and co-active coach at Promark Company, explained in the Undercover Recruiter that the abilities to think critically, find and mentor the right talent, embrace change and build relationships should be prized.

Innovation, confidence and the ability to listen must also play a part to ensure a leader can drive forward a business.

Management Vs leadership

Perhaps an easier way to define leadership is to compare it against management and note the differences.

A piece in the Undercover Recruiter explained that a leader develops and builds, while a manager maintains. A leader also invests in people, while a manager invests in systems and processes.

Leaders inspire, innovate and challenge the status quo, while a manager imitates and operates within existing structures.

Looking forward with leadership

While a clear-cut definition of a leader would certainly help during succession planning, unfortunately things aren’t that simple.

However, with clear trends emerging in the business environment, companies that want to move forward will need to hire those capable of managing them.

Continued economic and business uncertainty means that leaders will need to innovate and be able to make hard decisions.

Those with a commitment to developing others will also be integral as the skills shortage rumbles on.

Of course, any hire must share the core views and beliefs of an organisation, so be sure future leaders are passionate about the business. This will guarantee they will go one step further when necessary.