Now, more than ever in an increasingly uncertain world, businesses need leaders with all the right attributes to take them forward.
What does it take to be a truly great business leader? First and foremost, leadership is a state of mind. Nowadays, the most effective business leadership behaviours are centred on skills like emotional awareness, empathy and integrity.
Softly does it
These are ‘soft skills’. They are the core leadership behaviours that underpin business success. They improve human relations and staff engagement, among other benefits. And that means they are crucial in any leadership development programme.
Leadership development specialist StratXExl’s transformative leadership report observes: “To be successful in the next three years, leaders will increasingly need to master competencies in engagement, collaboration, trust, and transparency.”
These types of leadership qualities also highlight the limitations of traditional authoritative leadership – where one person assumes total control and rules alone, often with insufficient checks and balances to curb their excesses or poor decision making.
Skills that improve profitability
We are seeing a generational shift away from the authoritative leadership style. A dominant leader may enable faster decision-making and remove multiple management layers, but it’s a high price to pay if it results in poor employee motivation, low morale and lower productivity.
This blog looks at the new leadership skills needed in the 21st century. By using ‘softer’ people-focused skills, leaders can increase personal, professional and business productivity. You could improve profitability by 30% in just six months with leadership that is regenerative, ethical and mindful.
Here are 15 core essentials of an effective business leadership development programme. Many overlap and combine to help mould leaders who employees should be happy to follow:
1. Lead by example
A good leader sets an example by valuing their people, listening to their input and acting on it. They are adept at solving people-related problems.
As a leader they don’t take an authoritative approach that says their way is the only way. Nor do they undermine colleagues by stepping in where they aren’t required or interfering unnecessarily in established processes – this can cause confusion about, and resentment in, their leadership style.
Leading by example means delivering on what you promise – walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Great leaders roll up their sleeves. They gain important life experiences by getting involved at a practical level across their organisations, going outside their comfort zone, to understand their business from different angles.
Leading by example means learning from their mistakes, so they constantly improve their leadership skills. That also means taking ownership and responsibility for your actions. The example they set is to lead with confidence and humility, not arrogance and complacency.
2. Lead with imagination and creativity
Kantar’s Insights 2030 reports says imagination is a core competency for success, noting that “future success will require that business leaders significantly dial up their competency in, and commitment to, imagination”.
Social and economic upheaval has resulted in savvy leaders re-examining the skills required to make an impact. The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example that forced leaders to think creatively to solve an array of unforeseen problems. You’ll probably find that the common denominator of businesses that survived and emerged stronger is that their leaders have imagination.
3. Lead by making the right decisions
Getting the big – and little – decisions right has a direct impact on profits and productivity. Poor decision-making can be costly. Managers at Fortune 500 companies waste half a million days a year on ineffective decision making, according to a McKinsey & Co survey. That adds up to the equivalent of £250 million in wages annually.
Tough times and complex situations make it harder – but more important – to make the right decisions. Insight Assessment, a specialist in critical thinking assessments, recommends these essential decision-making skills: identify critical factors that could impact the outcome of your decision; evaluate your options, anticipate the outcomes; take account of uncertainties and unknown risks; analyse all available data to aid your decision making.
4. Lead with integrity
US President Dwight Eisenhower highlighted the importance of this characteristic: “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”
Integrity in business leadership can be hard one pin down, but it shouldn’t be. A leader with integrity should stand out. They do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; they accept the truth and are prepared to adjust their thinking accordingly.
Good leaders don’t compromise their integrity, for example, for the sake of expediency or to make short-term business gains. Integrity in business leaders also ties in with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles. After all, a strong corporate governance is set by those at the top.
Three strategies to show integrity suggested by CEO coaching organisation Vistage are to think about the other side of the argument before taking a stand; be clear in your commitments – avoiding generalisations and jargon; and be sincere and clear about what you say ‘no’ to – it also helps employees if they understand what your business ‘is not’.
5. Lead with enthusiasm
It sounds obvious, but enthusiasm is infectious. Ask yourself how you responded to a good leader and you’ll probably say that their positivity rubbed off on everyone in the room.
But enthusiasm alone doesn’t make a good leader. It’s only part of the package, although it is a very important element. Underpinning this spirit of optimism should be passion for the business and the clear vision about its direction and path to success.
A display of enthusiasm shows employees that they have your total buy-in. They can see your personal commitment to the business. This motivates and inspires people to follow you. A high and consistent level of enthusiasm helps carry businesses through difficult periods to achieve long-term goals.
6. Work hard
Another fairly obvious one, but there is no substitute for hard work. A strong leader knows the payback is worth the effort: the more you put in, the more you get out.
Hard work by leaders has to be productive in ways that benefit everyone: managing teams, motivating employees, communicating effectively, articulating business goals and objectives, dealing with a crisis, spotting new opportunities. That takes a lot of effort, especially when it is being undertaken with unabashed enthusiasm.
Another thing you notice in good leaders is that they tend to have a knack for making their hard work appear relatively effortless. It’s an attitude that also percolates into the whole work/life balance and wellbeing debate.
Good leaders are able to maintain both a high work rate as well as their wellbeing. We are increasingly seeing senior executives opening up to employees about their personal challenges as part of the corporate approach to wellbeing. There’s an honesty that employees appreciate when leaders share their personal stories. Being honest in this way says that it is okay to admit to pressure and uncertainty. But as a leader, it is equally important to demonstrate how you are able to deal with the pressure of hard work.
7. Be commercially aware
Good business leaders can spot the next big opportunity without taking their eye off the business-as-usual ball. They have many fingers on many pulses. That way, their organisation is always in the right place at the right moment to succeed.
Good leaders know the right time to enter or exit markets. They look for solutions to problems – often before competitors even realise there is a problem that needs solving.
Commercial awareness embraces knowledge of the latest market and economic trends, what your customers are doing, supply chain developments and legislative changes.
8. Be analytical
In the post-Covid business world, digital is king. From tech-savvy customers preferring online activity to employees working remotely. Coupled with these changing relationship dynamics, businesses are generating vast amounts of data daily.
But many organisations are behind the curve in exploiting the enormous power of data to improve their productivity and profitability. Data-driven leadership is still only an aspiration for many organisations: a recent Harvard Business Review survey found that barely one quarter of organisations said they were data driven.
Often, it is not the technology that lags behind but the people. Leaders need to embrace data-driven analytics and understand where to target technology investment. Otherwise, leaders become part of the problem, a barrier to progress, rather than an enabler of change.
Leaders also need to focus on the ethical and legal aspects of data management, as well as the threats posed by cybersecurity. A strong analytical focus has to be driven by leadership at the top of an organisation. Put another way, lead with change, or change leaders.
9. Be self-aware
Business leaders who recognise what soft skills they need will develop a better understanding of how to lead with humility. Having self-awareness is part of this approach. With self-awareness, you can avoid arrogance, a sense of invulnerability and complacency that have been the downfall of many businesses.
With greater self-awareness, leaders understand how their thoughts and actions might impact their colleagues. They are honest about their own abilities and recognise their shortcomings.
Self-aware leaders are not afraid of honest feedback. They can see how others react to them and are ready to ask colleagues for feedback.
Leaders who are self-aware know they have to change and keep changing for the long-term good of their business. Among the qualities that good leaders exhibit are these eight characteristics of self-awareness: reflective, observant, empathetic, perceptive, responsive, self-controlled, discerning and adaptable.
10. Be resilient
A resilient leader maintains high energy levels, especially in tough times. They take the knocks and get back up again. Their resilience is physical, mental and emotional.
They also know how to handle stress by using it positively to get the best out of themselves and others, without succumbing to its negative pull.
Regular exercise builds stamina and resilience. You’ll find leaders are often first in the gym early in the morning before the working day starts. Or jogging the streets around the hotel where their latest meeting has taken them. Getting enough of the right type of sleep is important, and mindfulness – along with self-awareness – also contribute to resilience.
Resilient leaders build strong business and social networks. This helps them deal with difficult challenges by sharing ideas to find the best solution.
11. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Good leaders communicate effectively at the right time so they inspire, empower and educate people. It’s another type of soft skill that can be learned with the right training – remember, not all great leaders are born communicators.
Through their personal style of communication, leaders drive employee loyalty and trust. They demonstrate honesty and transparency, for example, by sharing both good and bad news.
Leaders don’t just communicate in one direction. Two-way dialogues allow employees’ voices to be heard. So, as well as being communicators leaders also have to be listeners: showing empathy and understanding.
Effective communication requires a high degree of flexibility in. Leaders instinctively know the best way to deliver their message – which medium to use, the frequency and the type of language. It’s a knack that ensures the same message can be received by the widest group of people.
There is no shortage of great communicators throughout history. Good business leaders choose the techniques that best suit their personal style and subject matter.
12. Serve your team
It’s an interesting question for a leader: exactly how much should you lead and how much should you follow?
The concept of the servant-leader was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s. It is a natural feeling that you want to serve, which is then followed by a conscious choice that you want to aspire to lead. Think of the adage ‘do unto others as you would like others to do unto you’.
For business leaders, it means prioritising the wellbeing of your workforce and the communities you service. Successful companies have leaders who share power, put others first and help everyone in their organisation to develop and to perform to the best of their abilities.
Greenleaf’s approach, which led him to establish the Servant leadership movement, fits in well with the requirements of today’s business leaders to have empathy and integrity, to be ethical and mindful.
13. Focus on sustainability
In a business world increasingly dominated by ESG and CSR (corporate social responsibility), leaders must be attuned to a broad range of sustainability issues. Being more sustainable is good for business. What’s more, a well-articulated commitment to measurable sustainability actions is nowadays expected by employees, customers and other stakeholders.
The arguments for being more sustainable are well established. As are the perils of not doing enough: at the COP27 climate change conference in Egypt in November 2002, the United Nations’ Secretary General Antonio Guterres gave a stark warning: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”
Leaders who focus on sustainability can:
• Improve brand reputation
• Increase demand for their products and services
• Enhance staff and customer loyalty
• Attract and retain new employees
• Be more efficient by reducing or removing wasteful practices
14. Be an ethical leader
Leaders who act ethically inspire those around them to act in a similar way. It’s about leading by example and with integrity.
In his book, Conscious Business, the leadership coach and adviser Fred Kofman describes an ethical approach taken by business that aims to produce a sustainable, exceptional performance based on solidarity and dignity. Ethical leadership helps to produce a more positive work culture and greater productivity.
15. Be a mindful leader
Being a mindful leader embodies many of the elements discussed here. Mindful leaders think of those around them and continually improve how they interact with others to make them better leaders. They are ‘present’ and fully engaged, enabling them to respond faster to challenges and ensuring they are always on the lookout for ways to make others in the workplace happier
Be a Regenerative Ethical Mindful (REM) business
Leaders with all the right tools can create stronger teams and improve decision-making at all levels. They enable their organisation to become a REM business. This delivers a competitive advantage, increases resilience and helps to create a greener planet.