21 June 2015

Which personality traits make for the best leaders? Is leadership potential intrinsic, written in our DNA, or is it something you can learn no matter what values you live by?

These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night – the matters that matter (and take up a lot of grey matter) – and keep me on the road, seeking out people who can help me find the answers. It’s been an amazing journey so far, but there’s no visible end on the horizon. Each time I think there might be, I arrive there to find a mirage and realise I need to dive deeper to quench my thirst for knowledge, one that I suspect can never be satiated.

Most recently, the question on my mind has been this: why do the most demonstrative people tend to take leadership positions, and are they even the best type of person for the job?

Having questioned some fairly inspirational people over the years, I think humility and caring for others are two of the most valuable leadership traits. Yet so many of these potential leaders get held back in today’s business world because it’s the louder, more bullish managers that tend to put themselves forward for this role. Real leaders, as I suspect is in their nature, stand back and help people develop, knowing that they can make a difference behind the scenes.

I hear a lot of people talk about “leading from the front” but what does this really mean and is it the best way to lead a team? Personally, I think this notion is most commonly held by people who may think they understand the theoretical side of leadership but have never done it themselves.

In reality, great leaders and great parents have a lot in common. You find that automatically, from the earliest time, you’ll try to get your child walking in front of you. This way, you can see if they fall or if they need support. If you’re ahead of them, how can you know when they need your help?

Great parents and great leaders have a lot in common

Great parents and great leaders have a lot in common

In this situation, I’d argue you’re not being the best parent or leader. While the word ‘lead’ or ‘leader’ is suggestive of being up at the front, facing forwards, I think it’s slightly misleading. In reality, the best leaders get more significance from helping others than they do taking centre stage.

Ask yourself this question: are you the lead violinist or the conductor? Too many people in this industry try to be both and fail at both as a result.

The lead violinist is an important cog in the wheel, operating in the limelight, but they are not necessarily the visionary, nor do they have the time or desire to motivate the other cogs in the wheel. It’s the orchestra conductor who makes sure they have everything so that when the time comes for them to play, they’re prepared.

There’s a time to step up to the front, but often this is during the early days of business when the people around you are feeling fearful and maybe don’t want to make mistakes. Further down the line, empowering and developing other people becomes the more important challenge – and the most rewarding.

So, how do you identify a great leader?

Jim Collins talks about this kind of leader as a level 5 leader, people like Ray Kroc, Walt Disney, etc. They were almost shy, not the lead violinist but much quieter, creating energy for other people to do things. Much of the time, these kinds of people have someone to counterbalance them – Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, for example. Having this balance between two people in business is often beneficial as you have someone to keep you in check and make sure things are well thought through.

Having said this, not all people are either one or the other. Most people lean to one type of persona more than the other, but you do get some anomalies who can switch between conductor and lead violinist when they have to. Take Richard Branson, who will put himself in the limelight when his PR team ask him to. Although this is also part of his life ethos of always saying yes.

It’s also something you have to do sometimes in order to raise awareness of your business. I’ve had to be physically forced out of the office to do public speaking, but I’d be quite happy left in the corner to get on with it. That’s something I’ve had to learn. If you want to get something across you’ve got to use the best methods, but if I’d had to do what I do now on day one, I simply couldn’t have done it.

UKFast Richard Branson

Listening to others is an important part of leadership

Richard is also very successful as a leader as he is a great listener and asks a lot of questions in order to make the most informed choices. I’ll always remember Tom Bloxham, who I’d happily back for Manchester Mayor, reminding me: “You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion”.

Can leadership traits be taught?

I think, with Holly and Sam Branson, you could safely assume they will have picked up some of them from their father, but for kids who don’t have Britain’s biggest entrepreneur as their father, there is more chance of nurturing these skills if you are passionate about them and you have the right values.

The way I see it, you can learn things like improving your patience or listening skills, but you can only learn them effectively if you are already inherently caring and nurturing. These attributes, in my experience, are developed at a very early age. I see them in young people coming for interviews, and for us, they are far more important than exam results or skill set.

Attitude is ingrained, whereas skills can be taught. So if we did want to teach leadership as a country and as a subject, it would need to be taught very early on, certainly not at University where I’d argue it’s already too late.

Is there such thing as a bad leader?

I think what recent events have taught us is that a great leader knows when to step aside. The ultimate challenge as a leader and as a parent is that you have to understand that one day the law of nature is that someone will replace you.

FIFA is quite a relevant example of the importance of this knowledge. Sepp Blatter refused to be held accountable and only stepped down after a huge amount of pressure. In my eyes, this is not good leadership, especially the inclination to blame others when things go wrong.

If your job as a leader is to be responsible for the conduct of the brand and the perception of the brand in the public eye, has Blatter been successful? I would argue he has been extraordinarily unsuccessful. It all comes back to that saying: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Unfortunately, it seems that power is the driving force behind many people’s ambitions to become leaders. True leadership, from what I’ve observed in others, goes down to that granular level where caring about people matters most. Yet, to actually get to the top in a corporate environment, you’d usually struggle if you were overly obsessed with caring about others. It’s ironic and bittersweet when it’s such an incredible and important trait for a leader to have.

I think it’s time we change the status quo. Visionary leaders don’t lead from the front. They are not the lead violinist, but the proud parent, watching from the back and making sure everyone has the support and encouragement they need to thrive.

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