Financial Data
Updated 01 Oct 2020

Developing leadership ability

Leadership is about inspiring, persuading, challenging, creating and changing. Being a good leader can mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to growing your start-up.

This guide will help you to understand how to lead people in the right direction in order to achieve business goals.

There are many definitions of leadership. Fundamentally, leadership is a process that influences other people to achieve an objective and guides the company in a way to make it more coherent and cohesive. Leadership ensures that that the organisation works successfully and accomplishes the desired goals.

Being the boss doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have leadership qualities. The good news is that leadership is a continuous learning process. Here’s a list of top leadership traits that will help you to motivate people to do more and become more, and will enable you to persuade people to go where they don’t necessarily want to go but they ought to. Work on developing these key qualities and you will create a happy and productive workplace.

Top 10 character traits of great leaders

1. Leaders have vision 

Leaders are able to create a vision of a positive future, which begins the process of getting buy-in from the team.  A leader without a vision is not a leader all, they are a manager.

Famous leadership author Peter F Drucker had this to say about visionary leadership: "Leadership is not magnetic personality – that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not 'making friends and influencing people' – that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person's vision to higher sights, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations."

In an environment in which business is becoming increasingly competitive, the need for survival will force SME leaders to be visionary, purposeful, committed and dogged. Visionary leaders develop a picture of a desired future and structure their business operations to be guided by that picture.

These leaders are not deterred by economic slumps. They are committed to plans, procedures and methodologies on how to survive in hostile business environments. They are self-motivated to believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

2. Leaders are strategic

A good leader understands how to capitalise on the assets of the organisation in order to create a successful vision. Once they have established that vision for the future, they set the strategy for getting there; they cause change. They motivate and inspire others to go in the right direction.

Strategy development expert Michael Porter says that a strategy delineates a territory in which a company seeks to be unique. “Sound strategy starts with having the right goal,” he says.

Business leader and author Larry Bossidy offers some practical advice: “If you can’t describe your strategy in 20 minutes, simply and in plain language, you haven’t got a plan. ‘But,’ people may say, ‘I’ve got a complex strategy. It can’t be reduced to a page.’ That’s nonsense. That’s not a complex strategy. It’s a complex thought about the strategy.”

In business leadership, Strategy is the on-going process of formulating, implementing and controlling plans to guide the business in achieving the desired goals or objectives. In brief, Strategy is a tool for planning and execution.

For SMEs, a strategic framework includes market assessment, plan formulation, plan implementation (practical application of the business idea), and plan evaluation (constant assessment of progress made whilst correcting any deviations).

A strategic leader knows how to answer these questions:

  • Where are we now? (The current state of the business)
  • Where do we want to go? (The desired state of the business)
  • How do we get there? (The methodology implemented to reach the next phase)

3. Leaders are competent

Leaders know their business. They know the market and they know their customers. This enables them to set a vision and strategy based on knowing, not guessing. US army general John Pershing says, “A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralise the best of troops.”

Professional competence – knowing what to do – is vital. Being competent doesn’t mean that you have to know how to do everything, but rather that you know what to do and how to get it done. A competent leader will know where their strengths and weaknesses lie and what kind of expertise they will need to surround themselves with.

Competence engenders confidence in a leader, and it must often be revealed through action. Leaders need to take the time and effort to show followers what they’re good at and why followers should be confident in their ability. If you know you lack competence in a key business area, you can address this by taking a course on the topic or spending some time doing research on the Internet.

4. Leaders are perceptive

Excellent people skills are required of leaders. Leaders notice the details. You must be perceptive in dealing with others, good at assessing moods and trends, and able to handle any situation involving sensitive matters and emotional issues. Some of the charisma attributable to great leaders has been a by-product of this ability to read their audience.

Being perceptive means knowing when to push and when to hold back, when to direct and when to let go, when to confront and when to leave the situation unchallenged. A well-known quote by Miyamoto Musashi, a famous Japanese swordsman, highlights the importance of perception as follows: “Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”

If your perception skills are not as strong as they should be, consider engaging the services of a coach who can help you to develop these skills.

5. Leaders communicate well and are articulate 

The ability to communicate is crucial. Leadership requires communicating the strategy in order to accomplish the vision.  A leader must be a good communicator, must give speeches, and must motivate the group towards the vision.  Leaders get buy-in to ensure results, and they inspire people to do things they never thought they could.

Harvard Business School professor Nitin Nohria says: "Communication is the real work of leadership. You can reach people through logos or logic, by appealing to their sense of what is rational. You can use pathos, appealing to their emotions, or you can make an argument based on their sense of values or ethos.

Great leaders spend the bulk of their time communicating, and they know how to employ all three of Aristotle's rhetorical elements." Nohria says that leaders are able to distil their message, however complex it may be, to something that is accessible to those who may not share their knowledge or background.

Another HBS professor, John Kotter, underscores the positive potential of facing problems head-on. "Great leadership does not mean running away from reality. Sometimes the hard truths might just demoralise the company, but at other times sharing difficulties can inspire people to take action that will make the situation better.”

To improve your communication skills, consider enrolling for a short course, or create a reading list and work your way through. There are many books on how to improve your talents in communication.

6. Leaders are passionate and motivated

To lead others, you must truly believe in and care about the strategy and vision.  A leader who was truly passionate was Apple founder Steve Jobs. As he said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.”

Passion and motivation ensure that you will always have your destination in sight and not be distracted by obstacles. Setbacks will not hinder you.

If you lack passion for what you are doing, it may be worthwhile to re-evaluate and spend some time understanding what really inspires you. Remember, nobody wants to follow a half-hearted leader.

7. Leaders are assertive and decisive

A leader must overcome many obstacles and objections when trying to lead. Maintaining your position requires sticking to your beliefs. Making decisions is what a leader does.  Decisions may not always be liked but leaders make them anyway to keep the organisation moving forward.

According to former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, “Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. It's inevitable, if you're honourable.

Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you'll avoid the tough decisions, you'll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you'll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset.

Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally ‘nicely’ regardless of their contributions, you'll simply ensure that the only people you'll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organisation.”

Being assertive will make your business life a lot less stressful. Assertiveness leaves you with more time on your hands to do other things. Your assertiveness helps gather others around you as you learn to delegate better and communicate effectively.

Should you feel that you are lacking in assertiveness, there are many assertiveness trainers who can help you to develop this important skill.

8. Leaders are good negotiator

When it comes to leading people, authority has its limits. One of your roles as a leader is to inspire people to act willingly for the benefit of the business. This almost always involves negotiation.

Negotiation is about knowing what you want, going after it, and respecting the other person in the process. Remember that the whole point of negotiating is compromise. This means that you need to look out for yourself, but also be willing to budge in order to satisfy both parties.

Just as leaders can impact the outcome of meetings so too can effective negotiator-leaders impact the outcome of a negotiation. As business guru Brian Tracy says, “Your ability to negotiate, communicate, influence, and persuade others to do things is absolutely indispensable to everything you accomplish in life.

The most effective men and women in every area are those who can quite competently organise the cooperation and assistance of other people toward the accomplishment of important goals and objectives.”

The Internet has a wealth of information on how to improve your negotiation skills.

9. Leaders are adaptive and innovative

Steve Jobs noted that innovation distinguishes leaders from followers. Management expert Peter Drucker says, “Innovation is the specific tool of entrepreneurs, the means by which they exploit change as an opportunity for a different business or a different service.

It’s capable of being presented as a discipline, capable of being learned, capable of being practiced. Entrepreneurs need to search purposefully for the sources of innovation, the changes and their symptoms that indicate opportunities for successful innovation. And they need to know and to apply the principles of successful innovation.”

As globalisation removes geographic boundaries and market barriers that once kept businesses from achieving their potential, a company’s ability to innovate – to tap the fresh value-creating ideas of its employees and those of its partners, customers, suppliers, and other parties beyond its own boundaries – has become a core driver of growth, performance, and value.

Innovation cannot be learned, but it can be encouraged if you develop an innovation ecosystem built on trust, curiosity, tolerance of diversity, faith, confidence, and lack of fear, all of which will encourage your people to be innovative. Remember, the most innovative leaders in the world are driven by the will to make the world a better place, wreck the status quo and take risks and fail.

10. Leaders have a strong network

Robert Kiyosaki says, “The richest people in the world build networks; everyone else is trained to look for work."  The value of networking cannot be overstated when you're starting a business.

It means building up a network of people. It's easier to find the right service, investors, suppliers, partners, and everyone and everything else you need for your business when you know the people you're dealing with or they've come personally recommended. And the more people you know, the more business opportunities you'll discover - people do business with people they like.

If you're looking for investors or partners, there's absolutely no substitute for personal contact. There are many network events going on, so if you need to grow your network, find out which ones are most suitable for you and the sector you are in.

The more people you meet and tell about your business, the bigger your network will be and the more business opportunities you will have.  Carry business cards around with you everywhere, and practise describing your business succinctly.

Recommended reading

The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker

The measure of the executive, Peter Drucker reminds us, is the ability to get the right things done. This usually involves doing what other people have overlooked as well as avoiding what is unproductive. Intelligence, imagination, and knowledge may all be wasted in an executive job without the acquired habits of mind that mould them into results. Drucker identifies five practices essential to business effectiveness that can, and must, be learned:

  • Managing time
  • Choosing what to contribute to the organisation
  • Knowing where and how to mobilise strength for best effect
  • Setting the right priorities
  • Knitting all of them together with effective decision-making

Ranging widely through the annals of business and government, Drucker demonstrates the distinctive skill of the executive and offers fresh insights into old and seemingly obvious business situations.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Peopleis recognised as one of the most influential books ever written. In this seminal work, Stephen R. Covey presents a holistic, integrated, principle-centred approach for solving personal and professional problems.

With penetrating insights and pointed anecdotes, Covey reveals a step-by-step pathway for living with fairness, integrity, honesty and human dignity – principles that give us the security to adapt to change, and the wisdom and power to take advantage of the opportunities that change creates. The book has been the key to the success of legions of business leaders and individuals the world over.

Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader, by Joan Goldsmith and Warren G. Bennis

Over his distinguished career Warren Bennis has shown that leaders are made, not born. InLearning to Lead, written in partnership with management development expert Joan Goldsmith, Bennis provides a programme that will help managers transform themselves into leaders.

Using wise insights from the world’s best leaders, helpful self-assessments, and dozens of one-day skill-building exercises, Bennis and Goldsmith show inLearning to Leadhow to see beyond leadership myths and communicate vision to others. With updates throughout,Learning to Leadis both a workbook and a deeply considered treatise on the nature of leadership by two of its finest and most experienced practitioners and teachers.

The Leadership Challenge by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner

This leadership classic is the gold standard for research-based leadership, and the premier resource on becoming a leader. Recently updated with the latest research and case studies, and offering inspiring new stories of real people achieving extraordinary results, the authors' central theme remains the same and is more relevant today than ever: Leadership is Everyone's Business.

Their five practices and ten commitments have been proven by hundreds of thousands of dedicated, successful leaders. This edition, with almost one-third new material, emphasises the global community and refocuses on business leaders.

Leadership Is an Art by Max De Pree 

This has long been a must-read not circulating in the business community. De Pree looks at leadership as a kind of stewardship, stressing the importance of building relationships, initiating ideas, and creating a lasting value system within an organisation.

Rather than focusing on the ‘hows’ of business life, he explains the ‘whys’. He shows that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality and the last is to say ‘thank you’. Along the way, the artful leader must:

  • Stimulate effectiveness by enabling others to reach both their personal potential and their institutional potential
  • Take a role in developing, expressing, and defending civility and values
  • Nurture new leaders and ensure the continuation of the corporate culture
  • Leadership Is an Artoffers a proven design for achieving success by developing the generous spirit within all of us. Now more than ever, it provides the insights and guidelines leaders in every field need.

The Radical Leap by Steve Farber

In his exciting and innovative business parable,The Radical Leap, Farber explores an entirely new leadership model, one in which leaders aren't afraid to take risks, make mistakes in front of employees, or actively solicit employee feedback.

Farber has written a business parable that reads like a novel, filled with vivid, fully realised, and eccentric characters, crazy plot twists, honest and believable conversations about leadership, and most important, an innovative program for leaders to inspire and engage their companies.

Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership through Literature by Joseph L. Badaracco

Through rich analysis of the main characters inThe Death of a Salesman, The Secret Sharer, The Last Tycoon,and other stories, Badaracco addresses complex issues leaders face, such as the soundness of their vision, their readiness to take on responsibility, the depth of their compassion, and their ability to manage success.

Leadership: The Power of a Creative Life by Rick Joyner

Leadership and creativity are two of the most influential forces on earth. Together they have shaped the course of history. This book is a study of these two forces, using powerful historical examples and imparting an understanding of some of the most important leadership and management principles. It is an uncomplicated, candid instruction; inspiring you from the mundane to rise to the highest levels of leadership and creativity in your own life.

  • Learn the difference between leadership and management.
  • A financial plan to get out of debt and build your own venture capital.
  • Five essential ingredients for success.
  • Exciting examples from great historical leaders.

Getting Things Done by David Allen 

In today's world, yesterday's methods just don't work. InGetting Things Done, veteran coach and management consultant David Allen shares the breakthrough methods for stress-free performance that he has introduced to tens of thousands of people across the country.

Allen's premise is simple: our productivity is directly proportional to our ability to relax. Only when our minds are clear and our thoughts are organised can we achieve effective productivity and unleash our creative potential. InGetting Things DoneAllen shows how to:

  • Apply the "do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it" rule to get your in-box to empty
  • Reassess goals and stay focused in changing situations
  • Plan projects as well as get them unstuck
  • Overcome feelings of confusion, anxiety, and being overwhelmed
  • Feel fine about what you're not doing

From core principles to proven tricks,Getting Things Donecan transform the way you work, showing you how to pick up the pace without wearing yourself down.