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What makes a leader “good”?

150 150 Matthew Doig

Leader, boss, head honcho, main man (or woman); many words are used to describe the person who is responsible for others, but they don’t really tell us much about what makes a good leader. We all have stories about great bosses and equally, the ones that made work a misery but what is it that actually determines the proverbial “good leader”?

Researchers explain good leadership in a number of different ways, but generally they are seen in the context of three key areas:

The traits that a great leader has. We can partially understand great leadership by looking at the particular personal qualities leaders display. Are they charismatic and can they get people working well by the force of their personality? Famous (and infamous) figures from history are often cited as examples of this, but many people will recount individuals from their own workplace who seemed to have the right mix of qualities that enabled them to harness the power of a team and achieve an objective. These qualities usually include things such as vision, courage, integrity and humility.

The style of leadership. No matter what qualities a leader has, they are likely to have a preference to adopt a certain style in their dealings with others. These styles generally concern the level of control a leader wishes to have, from an authoritarian approach, where little input from others is sought in making decisions, through to a more democratic approach where input from others is encouraged, to a fully hands-off approach, where people are encouraged to make decisions for themselves. None of these styles are necessarily good or bad in themselves and competent and reasonable leaders can operate successfully using any one of them.

The situational approach. No matter the style of leadership and the positive traits we possess there will be situations where a particular approach is needed. An emergency situation will call for an authoritative approach no matter what the underlying style of the leader. Experienced and competent staff getting on with a job, on the other hand, will require a more hands-off approach from the leader. In each case good leaders will assess the situation and act (or not act) accordingly.

Aside from the areas just covered, the key thing that people comment on to me is that they want a leader who is “authentic” and operates from a position that is consistent with who they are really like as a person. In other words, they are not seen as putting on an act of any sort. This sort of leader can build trust and thus influence others in a positive way.

Many existing and potential leaders are understandably quite interested in improving their ability to lead others. Understanding these areas and considering how we come across to others is an exercise well worth considering.