How to be a good Leader

Posted: November 24, 2010 in Uncategorized

In his Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx made this very popular statement: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. I have a different slant on this: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the crisis of leadership”.

“Leadership, the creation of ‘a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen’, has always been a rare commodity in the world.” (Alan Keith, Genentech). From politics to business to the home, good leadership has been a big problem. A good number of people who have looked up to leaders have been disappointed. The result has been revolutions, coup d’états, appointments, elections, assassinations, apathy and so on.

In 1940, there was a leadership crisis in the British Parliament. Leopold Amery, a member of the British Parliament, quoted Oliver Cromwell by saying: “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

World War II had run its destructive course for eight months, and it was not going well for Britain and her allies. To Leopold Amery and others in the government, a change in leadership was needed. Therefore, on May 7, 1940, in the House of Commons, Mr. Amery quoted the words above to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Three days later, Mr. Chamberlain left office and Winston Churchill took his place.

Seventy-seven-year-old David Lloyd George, who listened to the debate, had led Britain to victory in World War I and his many years in politics enabled him to evaluate keenly the work of high officials. In a speech to the House of Commons on May 8, he stated: “The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, so long as the Government show clearly what they are aiming at and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing their best.”

Clearly, we can deduce from George’s words the expectations that people have of their leaders: 1/ Identifiable, credible leadership must be in place 2/ Direction of leadership must be clear to all; and 3/There must be evidence of sincerity on the part of leaders.

So if you are a leader or aspiring to be one, how can you meet the criteria of a good leader? What characteristics do you have to cultivate. And how can you make effective use of these?

While I will be focusing on leadership in business, the principles herein are not limited to business alone. They can be applied in other spheres of life that require good leadership, including the family, school, a society and so on.

In management, there are four main roles that every manager at every level plays: namely planning, organising, leading and controlling. It is therefore apparent that every manager at whatever level is a leader, from board directors to the supervisor. If all managers are thus able to perform their leadership roles well, this would have a rippling positive effect on the stability and growth of the organisation and vice-versa.

Going by the definition of leadership by Alan Keith as quoted at the outset, leadership involves “creating a way”, or must “show clearly what they are aiming at” as George put it. I will illustrate this with a march-past. When contingents are marching at the annual independence celebration of Ghana on March 6, we usually see a leader who shows the way and whose example the rest should emulate as they march on. A good leader can influence those behind him to march as well as he does.
However, if he is not good, those who do not march well will copy his bad example and those who know how to march better will grumble about his leadership. In a similar fashion, a good business leader must be seen to be setting the right example for others to follow. If he does not provide that leadership, his team members will copy his bad example, imagining that it is good after all. On the other hand, those that perceive that he cannot lead well will start agitating against his leadership and either topple him or leave the organisation. Leadership is thus a very important element in business.

In 1939, Kurt Lewin and colleagues identified three main types of leadership. These are the Autocratic or Authoritarian style, the Participative or Democratic style and Laissez-faire or Free Rein style.

An autocratic leader is not open to suggestions and frowns on subordinate initiative. He rules with an iron fist and his decisions are final and must be carried out.

The participative leader on the other hand believes in consultation and group decision-making. Thus he consults with the group when making decision and expects subordinates to make suggestions and use initiative, unlike the autocratic leader.

To the other extreme is the laissez-faire or free rein leader. Basically, he does not lead but rather expects subordinates to design their own methods and policies. They have maximum freedom to do whatever they like to do.

Each of these leadership styles has its own advantages and disadvantages. Since none is perfect, it would be unwise to assume them to be mutually exclusive. A good leader should have a cocktail of all these styles and apply the right one at the right time.

However, there is one other leadership style that has enthralled me personally, and I view it as the best form of leadership style—the Servant-leadership style.

The phrase “Servant Leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, he said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first; perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” —Culled from

Even though Greenleaf wrote his essay in 1970 and was followed by other notable management and leadership writers, the concept itself is believed to have its roots in ancient times. Among those credited for espousing this concept of leadership are Chanakya who lived c. 350–283 BCE and Lao-Tzu, who is believed to have lived in China sometime between 570 B.C. and 490 B.CE.

However, the one who epitomises the concept of servant-leadership is Jesus Christ. He said concerning his ministry: “like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life to redeem many people.”(Matthew 20:28) And he told his disciples: “The greatest one among you must be your servant” (Matthew 23:11)—The Good News Bible.

Hence, to be a servant first and a leader second, I believe, is the best approach to true leadership.

In general terms though, what are the traits of a good leader? I will isolate a few, categorising them into what I call human relation traits — which I see to be more important —and managerial traits. The human relation traits are as follows:

First, a good leader must be approachable. It has been a common thing since time immemorial for leaders to surround themselves with several barriers. Before a subordinate gets to see his leader, he goes through several procedures before he is able to. While it is true that being human a leader can only do so much at a time, a good leader puts in place structures representing him through which those whom he cannot humanly meet in person can have their concerns channeled. In the IT world of today, this has never been easier. The corporate intranet and e-mail are two potent means to achieving this. Another is through delegation of authority. And note: where there are so many who would like to meet you in person, you need to know whether the lieutenants to whom you delegated authority are not up to the task and should be appraised.

I had an experience I shall never forget. I would normally like to say the person’s name, but since I do not have his permission to do so I will use his designation:

This happened when I was going to the University of Ghana. Through the admission process, I had a problem and could think of no one else to help me but the then-vice chancellor (VC) himself! I went to his office and met a sweet, professional secretary who asked me to leave a message in writing for the VC and booked an appointment for me to meet him. Looking back, I now know that the help I needed could easily have been sought at a lower level – and as the VC he could have referred me to the appropriate office. Yet he made the time to meet with me in person! I believe this is a fine trait of an approachable leader that every good leader worth his salt should emulate.

Second, a leader should be empathetic. A leader that is emotionally aloof from his subordinates is not worth any salt. To be empathetic is to be able to step into the shoes of another, as it were, in order to appreciate first-hand what he is going through. But a leader who is apathetic to the needs of his subordinates treats them like cogs in the wheel. And such a leader should not expect to have the loyalty of his subordinates. For example, do you know the effect it would have on a subordinate if he was sick and you as the CEO took just five minutes out of your busy schedule to write a get-well-soon note and send it to him? Even a simple text message can do. Yet if you could pay a personal visit, especially in a case where the ailment is prolonged, that would be a blast! This has the potential of boosting employee morale, knowing that she/he is recognised and appreciated by her/his boss.

Third, a good leader should listen. I like what some people, say that God wants us to listen more and talk less – and that is why he has given us two ears but only one mouth. To be a listening person is an art that has to be learned. This listening can be done when conversing with someone. Most of the time, a subordinate only needs is someone to pour out his feelings to without fear — an outlet to vent his grievances. A discerning leader will be patient enough to listen to everything the subordinate has to say without checking his watch or flipping through a financial report—even if what the subordinate is saying does not make sense to him. To be sure, it is a tall order but a good leader would make the effort to meet it.

Another way a leader can be a good listener is striving to know what is on the subordinates’ mind. This can be done by simply observing and picking up signals without eavesdropping on or needlessly barging into subordinates’ conversations and the like. If as a leader you really know your subordinates, this would be easier to do. This takes us to the next trait of a good leader:

Fourth, know your subordinates. Do you know your subordinates by name? Do you have a record of their phone-numbers? While these are the first steps toward knowing your subordinates, they are only peripheral. Knowing someone by name or simply having someone’s number does not necessarily mean that you know the person. Knowing a person goes deeper. The Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘know’ among other things as: “Know the nature or character of”. A good leader will take pains to know his subordinates that much. That way, he is able to discern when something is going wrong. This knowing should not come as a result of the application of psychological knowledge. It is the kind of knowing that emanates from a keen genuine interest in a person and not just for purposes of performing one’s role. It is a real challenge. But it is certainly worth all the trouble.

Fifth, a good leader does not inspire unhealthy fear. Fear is debilitating and it stifles creativity and initiative. Some leaders take pleasure in entering an office and scaring everyone to be seriously working and afraid to speak. Such a posture is very unhealthy for a leader and is counter-productive. This is because subordinates will only pretend to be working when in your presence. But as soon as you turn your back they burst out in laughter and settle down to doing other things. Contrary to what many people believe, unhealthy fear is not equal to respect. Further, if you are feared as a leader a lot of things will happen on your blind-side and you might never get to find out. Also, if you are feared subordinates will not approach you. Thus you do not get the opportunity to know first-hand what is happening and taking corrective or preemptive measures.

Humility is the sixth trait we want to consider. The mere mention of humility as being expected of a good leader might make some cringe. This is because humility is often viewed as a weakness instead of strength. Yet if the opposite of humility is arrogance, pride, then please tell me which one is a better trait for a leader. A humble leader appreciates the efforts of his subordinates, he consults with his team-members before making a critical decision, he gets into the ditch to do the work with his subordinates; he even views his subordinates not as such, but as colleagues. It is easier for such a leader to enlist the support of all in the team as he charts the course to a common good.

Now let us look at our proud, arrogant leader. Let me quickly state though that pride is not bad in itself. We all need some amount of pride to accept ourselves and find our place in society. However, when that feeling of pride becomes inordinate it turns into a weakness. An arrogant person talks down to others and pretends to see things afar off when they are indeed mirages. It usually takes just a little stone to get such a prideful person down to lick the dust. Probably the well-known biblical story of David vs. Goliath best illustrates this.

True humility is thus a very desirable quality in a good leader. Once again, it is not a sign of weakness. Rather it is a sign of strength, of stability, of security and of maturity.

Modesty is the next trait, seventh. Modesty is sometimes used interchangeably with humility. However, they are two different things, even though they sometimes go hand-in-hand. Modesty is “Formality and propriety of manner”. (Webster’s) It involves following due procedure. A modest leader is aware of his limitations within an organisation, recognising that there are some things he simply cannot do even though he is the leader. He would thus not arrogate to himself the right to hire personnel, for instance, if that does not fall within his purview. Modestly, he concedes that responsibility to the appropriate official – even if he is the owner of the business.

A modest leader would also not seek to control every aspect of the business. He is aware of what he can humanly do and what things he has to delegate. Thus, he hires competent personnel in whom he reposes trust to handle those aspects of the business and makes sure that he has in place a system that can run on auto-pilot even in his absence.

I identify the following as necessary managerial traits:

Eighth, set a good example. In our part of the world especially, some people in leadership positions think that since no one can check their hands, they are free to do as they please. Therefore, they report to work and internal meetings late. They leave the office as they please and do not submit to general rules and regulations governing the organisation. A leader with such an attitude can only expect that his subordinates will follow suit – and the “Do as I say and not as I do” trick will only backfire. Let us go back a while to our illustration at the outset of this article. If the leader of the march-past group decided to mark time – lifting the right leg first instead of the left – would he expect his followers to do otherwise? Well some would do the right thing while others would opt to follow the leader. What would be the result? There would be discord in the group. There would be no uniformity and the group would fail. This is exactly what would happen in an organisation where leaders did not set the right example. While some would insist on doing the right thing, others would choose to follow a bad example. The result would be disintegration of the organisation. And this is no myth; it is actually happening in many a business organisation.

Ninth, display integrity. Integrity is “Moral soundness”. Morality does not only relate to sexual intimacy but much more. It “Concern[s] with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong; right or good conduct” (Webster’s). Thus to be a person of integrity, a good leader should strive to live by acceptable standards at all times. We live in a world where the majority thinks that you cannot make it without being dishonest. Hence many people do not see anything wrong with under-invoicing, under-declaration of profits and such-like vices. “Like sheep, all of us have gone astray or followed false shepherds after pausing to kill our emergent prophets. Political leaders we have in abundance, as well as military leaders, business leaders, social leaders, intellectual leaders. But moral leadership languishes” –Karl Menninger in “Whatever Became of Sin?” p. 192.

A true leader who displays integrity in business matters concerning his both internal and external publics will have the moral audacity to correct any internal dishonesty on the part of employees. But in the absence of such moral soundness subordinates will not respect the leader, let alone do their work with integrity. Hence, while it is not easy to live by such an unpopular standard, in the long-run it pays to be honest in all your dealings as a leader.

Tenth, a good leader must have foresight. Some say he must be visionary. It may surprise some readers that I chose to bring this trait last, since a lot of people believe that it is foremost. I did not intend to arrange the traits according to their relative importance. However, while I believe that vision is a very important trait, I believe also that foresight or vision would be useless, to say the least, if the foregoing traits were missing. That is why I do not subscribe to the notion that it is the most important. Yet, how does a vision develop?

A vision develops when the leader unselfishly seeks to find innovative ways of meeting a human need. I see that to be most important. A vision built mainly around materialism is doomed to failure. On the other hand, one that is altruistic in nature succeeds. This is because others gravitate more easily to what is commonly shared and is deemed to be beneficial to society at large. That way, all and sundry are motivated to put in their all while they also are given the opportunity to lend their own vision.

Eleventh, a good leader must be organised. Being organised does not only mean arranging oneself and surroundings well but, more importantly, involves the ‘organising’ function of a manager. This pertains to procuring the right resources—human and capital—that are needed to make the business run and succeed. It also means keeping accurate records. Further, it requires that there is a business plan that serves as the business’s Bible. The business plan should not be shelved. It should be consulted regularly for controlling purposes – i.e. checking actual performance with the standards set therein. That way, the role of organising will be better carried-out

After examining these eleven traits of a good leader, let us now turn attention to some things to avoid:

Avoid being an all-knowing leader. The time has past when the leader was considered to be the repository of all wisdom. A modest leader will thus encourage his followers to contribute to the decision-making process. Pretending to know it all is self-defeating and stifles the growth of the business, since valuable input from equally or even sometimes more knowing personnel is missed.

As a sequel to the above, avoid the trap of failing to give credit. The behavior of some leaders is like this: you share a very good idea you have conceived with them, and then they later turn to lecture you on the same idea as if it were their own and fail give credit where it is due. Such a behavior betrays a lack of honesty and does not encourage subordinates. Having foresight does not make you all-wise and all-knowing.

Certainly, there is more that we can say about leadership and its importance. And I do not want to pretend to know it all either. But I believe that if leaders at all levels of the organisation apply these traits, they will be able to transform their respective units, departments, branches and organisations to the end of creating wealth and reducing poverty.

I would be most grateful for your thoughts; whether you agree or disagree with any of my views or you have some contribution. You may send them via email to You may also join the Column’s community and post your views on its face-book wall and discussion board respectively by “liking” “The Business Strategy Analyst” or call/text me on 024/026 4 616 808. The column appears every Monday. Thank you!

Source: BFT

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