24 February 2019
What does it take to be an extraordinary leader?
Over the years, I’ve read (and written) so many articles and heard from a number of incredible leaders who all talk about ‘leading from the back’. About how the very best leaders get more significance from helping others to succeed, rather than taking the spotlight themselves.
I was recently at an event with the Manchester Camerata where I was reminded of this. The Camerata is an incredible group of musicians who I have supported for many years. Their music director is a man called Gábor Takács-Nagy. Gábor is an extraordinary character, who is musical to his very core.
He said that his job is to inspire and give confidence to the people around him because after all it is them who get to go out and do it, not him. I’ve never before seen a leader who so perfectly personifies this humility that is so intrinsic to being a great leader.
Hearing him speak of his role in the Camerata and the performance, it’s clear that he plays an absolutely essential part but for which he takes none of the limelight.
There is a time to stand up front, to rally the troops, to inspire and motivate.
Jim Collins writes of Level 5 leaders in his book, Good to Great. The leaders, as I often quote, are motivating characters but they’re also humble. Humility is a rare and invaluable trait in leadership.
Motivated by Fear
If you stop to look around, you’ll see that those who motivate by fear, those big brash, disruptive characters. These leaders may get short-term gains but will rarely develop long-term relationships and the respect of the team they’re leading. Whereas, the humble, people-focussed leaders – like Sir Alex Ferguson or Sir Richard Branson – build and empower the team around them.
Unfortunately that’s not always the case. I remember many years ago waiting to go into the board room with senior management. We were to present what we’d been working on and share our progress. My senior at the time asked me what I had prepared. Foolishly, in hindsight, I told him.
We headed into the meeting and worked around the table, each having our moment to speak. The director with whom I had spoken ahead of the meeting sat to my left and spoke just before it was my turn. What did he share? My ideas and progress as his own! I sat in chagrin as it became my turn to speak, with nothing to share.
This was just one example of that same person taking credit for others’ ideas and work. It was a clear sign to me that I was in the wrong organisation and it was my time to leave for something new. I don’t know where that person works now, nor whether they have changed their ways but in my experience, characters like him are found out in the end. They trip over themselves, or come up against people who have more experience than I had at that time, who won’t accept that behaviour.
Humility above all else
Ironically, it is often these highly self-confident characters who are not particuarly self-aware. They don’t see the damage that they leave in their wake. Instead they see any problems or dips in performance as caused by something else altogether. Equally they often have quite a fixed mindset – ‘this is the way that we do things, and always have done’. In fact, a good leader is able to listen and learn. They have ‘two ears and one mouth’.
The humility that Jim Collins champions so much, enables these incredible leaders to be receptive to new ideas. To listen. In nature, you’re either growing or you’re dying and business is exactly the same. If you’re not learning something new every week (if not every day) you’re doing something wrong, especially if you’re a leader.
Humility also removes the pressure to take the spotlight. That’s why you’ll find UKFast leaders at the back of the pack when we take a Snowdon trip and tackle a series of challenges. I can guarantee that every leader in UKFast will take the spot at the back of the group to support those who find the challenge tough, rather than chasing on ahead to be the first to the finish line. I noticed this some years ago when we did trips every other week – it was a pattern that was so very clear but never ceased to amaze me. Real leaders are focussed on getting everyone over the line, not getting themselves over it first.
Whenever I am considering promoting or hiring a new leader, I bear in mind the phrase: Power corrupts, absolutely power corrupts absolutely. Do people who want to be leaders simply to have more power deliver the best outcomes? Unequivocally, that answer is no.
The very best leaders are motivated by helping other people to succeed. It really is that simple. People who take a genuine interest in others, who know their friends and family, who build meaningful relationships. My wife, UKFast MD, Gail is a perfect example of this. She knows everyone at UKFast and is the first to know of an engagement, new baby or special occasion, despite how quickly UKFast and our other businesses are growing.
Gábor is such an extraordinary leader because he listens. He is a fantastic communicator, the same can be said for Sir Alex Ferguson. I was reminded of this leadership quality this week. As our family holiday comes to a close, I spoke with the owner of the Soneva Fushi resort, Sonu. He told me that building and running the island to such a high standard relies on extraordinary levels of communication. Sonu regularly updates his team so that they know exactly what’s happening in the business and that they are a valued, important part of it.
He goes into more depth about this and his personal story in the next episode of my podcast, which will be out on iTunes tomorrow.
At the end of the day, those truculent characters, those who smash into a business like Godzilla, leaving nothing but wreckage and harm, should be confined to the history books. No modern business has the capacity for that behaviour. People simply won’t stand for it and your business will suffer because of it.
Real leadership is about empowerment, growth and genuinely caring about those around you. It’s a simple but perfect formula.