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Updated 16 Oct 2019


The art and science of leadership

The debate about whether leaders are born or made might never be resolved conclusively. In the meantime, however, there is more than enough information out there to help you hone your leadership skills. Here is some food for thought.


02 April 2012  Share  0 comments  Print


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Leadership is both an art (it requires creativity) and a science (it depends on specific principles and techniques). So, have you got what it takes to be a "Da Vinci?"

"Failing organisations are usually over-managed and under-led," says Warren G. Bennis, founder of the Leadership Institute in the United States.

While managers are the people who do things right, he explains, leaders are people who do the right thing. All too often, managers find their way into leadership positions that they are simply not equipped to handle.

What then, are the qualities of a good leader? And as an SME owner, what can you do to inspire your team to greatness?

Good leaders have a way of making people feel that they are at the very heart of things, and that what they do makes a real difference to the success of the business.

A true leader is both a learner and a teacher; someone who motivates others and unleashes their capabilities as opposed to simply being the most capable person in the business.

To be an effective leader, you must be:

  • Emotionally stable. Can you tolerate frustration and stress? Do you have the psychological maturity to deal with anything that comes your way?
  • Dominant. Are you competitive and assertive in the way you think and in the way you deal with others?
  • Enthusiastic. Are you active, expressive, optimistic and open to change?
  • Conscientious. How strong is your sense of duty and self-discipline, and how high are your standards of excellence?
  • Bold. Are you spontaneous and responsive to others? Are you prepared to take risks - and will you bounce back if something goes wrong?
  • Tough-minded. Are you practical, logical and to-the-point?
  • Self-assured. Are you confident and resilient? And do you dwell on past mistakes - or learn from them?

Not everyone is a natural leader. Personal traits play a major role in determining who will and who will not be comfortable leading others. For example:

  • High energy. Long hours and some travel are usually a prerequisite for leadership positions, especially as your business grows. Remaining alert and focused is essential.
  • Intuitiveness. Reasoning and logic isn't always enough. True leaders must know the value of using their intuition and trusting their "gut feel" when making decisions.
  • Maturity. This means recognising that you can achieve more by empowering others than by ruling them.
  • Teamwork. Instead of promoting paternalistic relationships, true leaders create adult/adult relationships with their employees. This makes people feel that they are a valued part of the team.
  • Empathy. Leaders are able to put themselves in the other person's shoes. This empathy builds trust, which encourages best effort.
  • Charisma. Leaders are often "larger than life". This enables them to captivate employees, arouse their emotions and motivate them to reach for a higher goal.

What makes good leaders great?

  • Integrity. Don't do anything or ask someone to do anything that you couldn't go home and explain to your children.
  • Consistency. Don't change direction too frequently. You will lose people's confidence.
  • Decisiveness. Consider other points of view, but don't put off making the final decision.
  • Bravery. Seek longevity by embracing risk.
  • Vision. Have a clear vision and be committed to realising it against all odds.
  • Resolve. Look for best practices and people. Great leaders don't hesitate to fire those (even friends) who don"t perform.
  • The ability to listen. You must be able to handle (and act on) others opinions - even if you don't agree with them.
  • Willingness to admit a mistake. Admit to your shortcomings, otherwise people will not respect you.
  • Say it - and mean it

An international study involving some 20,000 exit interviews found that the number one reason why people leave jobs is "poor supervisory behaviour". In other words, bad bosses. And one of the biggest factors cited in "poor supervisory behaviour"was poor communication skills.

Managers and business leaders spend an estimated 50% to 80% of their total time communicating in one way or another. Small wonder then that if you do it badly, the success of your entire business is at stake.

Effective communication is the key to managing customer and staff expectations, coordinating work efforts and building a deeper understanding of your customers.

It isn't always easy to know if you are communicating well, but it's even harder to know if you're doing it badly. Poor communication is self-sustaining, because there is no feedback loop. Staff don't voice their concerns because they don't think management will listen.

Think of communication as being a bit like looking after an office pot plant: it's easy to do right, in theory, but also easy to get wrong. Like an office plant, keeping communication alive and well in your business relies on three things:

  • Basic skills and understanding (of language and communication devices, much like knowing when and how to water a plant).
  • The right environment (a culture of openness and trust is as critical to communication as sunshine and warmth is to your office greenery).
  • Regular attention (without care and input, communication, just like a neglected office plant, will eventually shrivel up and die.)

If you get this right, then sharing good news becomes a real celebration, and sharing bad news becomes more manageable.

Remember that consulting with your employees and helping them to understand changes in the business never weakens your position, it strengthens it.

Also remember that as an entrepreneur, you probably thrive on change, rather than fear it. Your staff, on the other hand, probably find it disturbing and threatening. Their fear of change is as great as your own fear of failure.

Good communication is the only way to bridge the gap. Work with your employees to reach consensus on:

  • How to handle disagreements within the work place.
  • How to communicate from employee to employee.
  • How to communicate from manager to employee and vice versa.
  • What information should be available, and when.

What do your staff think of your performance as a manager? Are you scared of asking? Don't be.

Feedback will engender loyalty and help to make you a better boss. Simply ask for it in person, as part of an ongoing dialogue with each of your employees.

Be sincere. Some things may be hard for you to hear, but it is even harder for employees to speak their mind. Keep working at it until they feel comfortable enough to confide in you.

Match the message to the medium

Email is a valuable communication tool, but is sometimes used carelessly or too much. Follow these guidelines to ensure it works for, and not against you.

  • Don't manage your business via email. You won't reach everybody you need to reach and your presence won't be felt. Use email to send fast, high-impact messages to people you can't reach in person or telephonically.
  • Keep it short and sweet. Emails longer than one screen often aren't read straight away. Know when to put down the mouse and pick up the phone.
  • Decode your messages. Make the subject line clear and compelling, and be sure about who needs to be on the "to:" and the "cc:" line. Spell out actions and priorities.
  • Encourage people to respond with questions. It's like keeping your office door open.
  • Save your wrath for face-to-face meetings. Terse emails often come across more harshly than intended. Control the message by delivering it in person or over the phone.
  • Keeps jokes and emoticons to a minimum. Too many emails with smiley faces will erode your efforts to write serious messages.
  • Set up a five-minute buffer between when you click send and when it goes out. This gives you time to retract poorly written messages or text written in anger.
  • Learn to write emails effectively. Customers or colleagues who don't see you regularly may judge you largely on your emails. Use a spell checker and thesaurus. Avoid typos and mangled sentences.
  • Finally, use email as a back-up. If the message is important or time critical, precede it with a phone call.
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