The art of leadership

Young people looking ahead to their careers in the world of business may be considering their role as potential leaders. But what makes a good leader and can the skills needed be developed, as opposed to occurring naturally?

The concept of leadership and what makes a good or bad leader is one of the most debated in the world of business. It has been an almost universally accepted truth that a truly successful company needs strong inspiration from the top.

Yet when it comes to defining ‘good’ leadership, it is harder to find agreement. Indeed, while academic studies on leadership have multiplied since the 1970s, there is no single definition or concept of good leadership that satisfies all.

While definitions may vary, there are traits and characteristics that are common across the board. Qualities such as honesty, communication, confidence, commitment and the ability to inspire all come to mind when we a picture a ‘good’ leader.

Margaret Ormiston is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London School of Economics and teaches MBA classes on leadership and leading teams.

“There are two elements that are really central to good leadership,” she says. “Self-awareness is important so that a leader understands their own strengths and weaknesses. That, though, needs to be allied to social awareness – understanding those people around you and their needs.

“With those two qualities, a leader is in a better position to motivate their team and help to get them where they need to go.”

A changing view of leadership

Ormiston’s view of what makes a good leader highlights the changing approaches in leadership research that have taken place over the last few decades. In the 80s and 90s, great CEOs were put on a pedestal and the focus was very much on the brilliance of the individual.

Following the corporate scandals of the early 2000s, attention shifted to the importance of humility in leadership and the understanding that a really good leader is able to draw on the strengths of his or her team.

She goes on to say that “There is an increasing realisation that to expect one person to have all the attributes that go into making a great leader is a lot to ask. And that is the point, it is not just about one person but the team as a whole”

“Good leaders make it clear where people fit in the team and what they can bring to the table.”

Leadership theories

It is interesting to consider the leadership theories that have been proposed over the years. These range from the idea of a leader being a ‘great man’ – you’re either born with it or you’re not – to the suggestion that ‘position’ grants authority.

Ormiston warns heavily against a singular focus on ‘position’.

“Position helps and open doors but it absolutely is not enough,” she says. “If we over-utilise our position as leaders then all the other attributes that make a good leader go out the window.

“It is important to recognise that people can lead from any position in an organisation. We don’t need the title or top position. As long as we can influence, communicate and inspire people then we can play a leadership role.”

Authenticity is key

It is, though, the idea of ‘authentic’ leadership that leads the way in the current academic thinking and this comes back to Ormiston’s focus on self and social awareness.

“The key to authentic leadership is that it doesn’t involve trying to be someone else”…“We may be slightly different versions of ourselves depending on the situation but being authentic means we can sustain our approach to leadership and build an environment of trust and predictability that allows those around us to achieve their potential.”

Born or made

Amongst the theories and definitions of leadership one key question continually crops up – that of whether leaders are born or made.

Kenneth Chenault, the Chairman and CEO of American Express has suggested that leadership and becoming a better manager is like a sport. We may be born with certain skills and attributes that help us become better leaders but just like an athlete, we have to develop ourselves.

“Whatever our skill set, we all need to exercise our brains and our self and social awareness,” says Ormiston. “Self-development, in any context, is about stretching ourselves and achieving our potential but it has to be doable.”

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