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A guide to good leadership

Posted on by from The School of Life

Throughout the ages, much has been written about the traits of great leaders. It’s easy to feel intimidated by the vast amount of seemingly contradictory advice out there, therefore how do you know good leadership when you see it? Here’s our humble take on this vast topic:

Many of us are reticent to step into leadership roles, either professionally or personally; or if we do take that leap, we try to adopt a way of leading that we think is the right one, but which is ultimately not reflective of who we really are. The result? A failure to convince others to follow us.  

What makes you, you?

That’s why having a deep insight into ourselves lies at the very core of good leadership. The starting point for this should be a recognition of the fact that we are all a product of our experience. Understanding our past, particularly our formative childhood years, is vital in developing our awareness of the origins of what motivates us, inspires us, deflates us and ultimately drives the way we behave. Without this knowledge, many of us will continue to inadvertently fall back on unhelpful scripts, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty. Reflecting on our earliest experiences of power and authority helps us to bring unconscious emotional patterns into conscious awareness. This is the first step towards a more emotionally intelligent way of leading. 

But what are the other ingredients of good leadership? Here’s our leadership wish-list:

Authenticity

Self-insight alone is not enough to make a good leader. We need to actually do something with this precious information.  So once we have tuned in to our unique values, beliefs and principles the next step is to connect them to what we do every day. This is essential if we are to find meaning in our work, pursue goals that are genuinely important to us, and lead in a way that is truly authentic. Because ultimately, if we don’t find what we do every day meaningful, how can we ever hope to convince others that it’s a worthy occupation? Aligning our values and goals to our work will not only lead to more personal fulfilment but also has the added benefit of inspiring those who observe us in ‘flow’.

Connectivity

The third element of good leadership is about being able to connect with other people. It seems an obvious one, but ask anyone why they don’t like their boss and often they’ll say things like: “she’s only interested in her own agenda” or “he never listens” or “she never has time for me”. What we learn from this is that collaborating is hard. Few of us are born knowing how to do it. Odd though it might sound, we have to learn, by conscious reflection, how to work successfully with others.  We need to learn the skill of empathising with people. We need to actively create the psychological conditions in which everyone can do their most courageous thinking together, where everyone matters. 

In order to foster commitment we need to show that we trust our colleagues, that we value them, and acknowledge their efforts. We have to strive to make work meaningful for them. And ultimately, we need to remember to treat people as people, with the same aspirations, anxieties and fragilities as we grapple with ourselves.  

If all of this doesn’t come naturally, like many of us, it will require daily, even hourly, reminders to keep us focused on building these critical connections with our colleagues.  

Agility and resilience

Whilst these leadership ingredients may get us so far, there are two other critical elements which complete the leadership jigsaw.  They are the related concepts of agility and resilience.  

For most of human history, people have believed that the world doesn’t change very much. But today, most of us regard profound, widespread and frequent change as inescapable, especially in the modern workplace. Change may well be inevitable. But our relationship to change can be better or worse. We can use change well or we can be baffled and distressed by change. We can grow or diminish. Good leaders actively choose the former. They are agile in the face of change. They use their judgement to adapt their approach to each particular context. They are acutely aware of what type of thinking and behaving each situation requires – of whether they need to draw on their intuition, move quickly to practical action or drill down into the detail – and they adapt their approach accordingly. 

What we learn from all of this is that being a leader in the world today is hard – it opens us up to ridicule, misunderstanding, unrealistic expectations and loneliness. Therefore, in order to be successful, leaders need to find ways of coping with this reality through  by developing skills that enable them to bounce back from adversity. There is a common myth that in order to be resilient we need to be hard on ourselves. However lack of self-compassion can actually be what contributes to burnout. That is why leaders need to be willing to look at their whole self, including failures, fears and shortcomings, with kindness and understanding if they are going to successfully navigate the choppy waters of leadership. 

But above all, they need to remember that being a good leader is an ongoing process and something we can all work towards by keeping these key leadership ingredients in mind. 

Aoife  Keane

By Aoife Keane

Aoife heads up the business psychology area at The School of Life. Focused on developing the emotional health of organisations.

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