The tools and traits of a leader

14 Sep

Post by Expedite

Posted in: General, Learning & Development, Working Futures

The tools and traits of a leader

Leadership traits and techniques are written about so often that I feel slightly ashamed to add my two-penneth to the endless views on the topic. Open your Linkedin feed and you’ll see ’20 tips successful leaders do each day’, ‘7 Great leadership lessons’ and many many more . As a conference producer and someone who specialises in business content I’ve heard countless examples from speakers on this subject and as a manager I’ve faced some of the challenges, but I’m nowhere near to being an expert in this area.

I don’t have 10 tips to astound you, but I hope as a manager I have shown that you to put others needs before your own and to congratulate and push people along when needed. I expect a lot, I have little patience and I can lose the plot when my warped sense of humour takes over and distracts from the day to day work! But am I aware of these traits (strengths and weaknesses) but I hope this makes me more honest and approachable. I’m certainly stubborn, too honest and driven to succeed. I’m sure these traits affect how I manage others and what I expect back.

There is no magic formula on how its best to manage or lead as everyone and every team is different. It’s up to you to figure out how to act, react and show up. People respond differently and both the verbal and non-communication matters. The tone and language used is very important, leaders set the tone and I’m sure those that I have managed will tell you some stories. We can all relate to the leaders they have seen and been managed by – the good, the mad and terribly misguided. Leaders learn from situations and hopefully become better each time they have a conversation.

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Adrian Furnham, psychologist from UCL speak on leadership at the Benchmark for Business meeting. His findings really struck me as they are really simple, based on a large number of surveys and respondents over the past 20 years.

Principally there are three areas that a leader must balance:

1. Operational – Keep work going to target

2. Interpersonal – Softer people stuff

3. Strategic – Future looking and new ideas

And the critical skills that leaders must demonstrate are to:

1. Challenge – set clear goals with some stretch goals incorporated

2. Support – technically, informationally, financially and emotionally

3. Feedback – regularly give specific, honest, specific and give praise

These may all sound obvious and easy to achieve but work, stressful situations, individual and team objectives, imminent deadlines, emotional responses, changing priorities and all manner of other facets of work can erode one of these skills or areas.

For the sake of the team, Adrian mentioned that all anyone wants from his or her leader are two main behaviours:

1. Be honest – any team wants honesty from their leader as their top priority

2. Be humble – don’t take the praise, it’s the team that achieved it (we not I)

The invisible contract between a leader and their team members breaks when the leader goes back on their word and a leader being modest is a lovely quality that drives respect – so bite your tongue and praise others but make sure you mean it. If you’ve set the team up in the right way you’ll gain your satisfaction from them being happy and from them learning and working well. Celebrate successes together and learn from what went wrong. Don’t be afraid to call those parts out that didn’t work and investigate them further. This is what I have tried and it should underpin a team starting to work well together.

Turn around

The other learning I have found is to deal with issues that arise quickly. If a team issue or a problem with a team member festers then it normally causes further trouble. Be decisive and act quickly. The same is true when dealing with a complaint – it’s the same if a team member has made a complaint or if a customer has a problem. Think about the best route of how to fix the problem and especially with customers over deliver on what they expect you to do. This simple rule has always made a massive difference to how customers react to how you manage the problem. Normally if someone is angry they want it fixed, they want to be listened to and they want some form of reimbursement or something in return. If you can do all three quickly you’ll normally turn the situation from a negative to a positive. (They may even tell people about the problem they had but also the high level of service they have received.) Also if your team sees you acting in this way it incites the same behaviours with other team members.

Personality matters

Personality also has a huge role to play in all of this. The findings Adrian discussed regarding the personality traits of a good leader are:

1. Conscientiousness – Planning, drive, having a strong work ethic

2. Curiosity – inquisitive to new ideas, to be comfortable with (some) risk, and to be resilient to stress

3. Tolerant of ambiguity – open to change and working out new strategies from various data sets

4. Competition – willingness to compete and be commercial

5. Rapport – able to build relationships and network with different groups

Tolerance of ambiguity stands out for me in this list. Possibly because ambiguity, change and disruption are being talked about everywhere and this is currently one of the parts of the leadership muscle that needs to be developed further.

Resilience and determination

Training and effort hurts – but you get better at things when you put in more effort. The Malcolm Gladwell / Matthew Syed principal of 10,000 hours of practice rings true here. To get better at something you need to put in the hours and you need to learn from your mistakes. Therefore being resilience for me is when you’re not afraid to stretch your abilities and to face challenges that you think are above you. The courage to keep going is as important.

Intelligence and learning

But what about intelligence? Does your intelligence level not matter?
Adrian went on to cover that intelligence can be tested and developed (learned) from an early age. But that openness to learn every day and to have a positive mindset is important to make leaders more adaptable.


New ideas are always needed. Leaders need space and time to be creative and to form new ideas and strategies. This is a tricky one for me, I agree that people need time and space but they also need other team members to form ideas. It’s very rare that an idea or a concept isn’t improved when the team puts its collective thinking power together.

Going back to the leadership traits Adrian Furnham summarised that the four traits that a leader must have are as follows:

1. Adaptability

2. Relationships – ability to form new and grow existing relationships

3. Sharing and Learning

4. Self-awareness / Emotional intelligence

For me it this fits and leaders who acknowledge these traits will be better at balancing the needs of the team but pushing their people to deliver. Leaders must work at developing each of them and keep themselves up to date, they need broad networks to call upon and this will lead to better experiences to draw upon in different situations.

The openness and ability to change is possibly the current phrase of leadership. As businesses change and remove hierarchy, embrace new technologies and reformat their working processes, the mindset and propensity to change sits firmly with the leaders within the company to set the objectives and the new goals to their teams.

Leadership itself is changing and therefore another mountain of management books will continue to be written each year.