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Great leadership qualities – according to great leaders


Anyone know Boris Johnson? Maybe pin some of these leadership qualities to his fridge door…

Now if you’re like us, and naively think that the people in power have some morality, some leadership qualities, some qualities educated into them that would come to the fore in testing times, current scandals about Boris Johnson’s tailspinning government – well, not just current, it’s been going on for some time – are depressing. And enraging.

As we consider the future, while Johnson considers his, it did make us think of what qualities are necessary for great leadership. Perhaps we can all learn lessons if we look elsewhere. Anywhere else than No.10…


1. Integrity

This is about deep belief, about convictions, and a seriousness about the undertaking. Duh, but working life is not a reality TV show, a jolly jape, a bit of a lark around,  where you perform the job rather than do it properly. We all know those people, who sell themselves well, but are entirely ineffectual.

John F Kennedy said, in his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, “Courage, not complacency, is our need today. Leadership, not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.”

Vigour is an interesting attribute, which we take here as the ability to get things done, to pay attention to details and to rally action. That is the courage in action right there. Complacency would be to maintain everything is fine even as they’re clearly going wrong (Johnson: “[Covid-19 is] a scare story…another swine flu.” This was in February 2020, a mere month before lockdown). Great leaders don’t dismiss difficulties, or wish them away, but have a moral certainty to draw upon, that integrity, which means they can act with energy to implement solutions. Martin Luther King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

2. Empathy

You can’t inspire loyalty, or build an effective team, or know the effect of your decisions, without empathy. It allows you to know if you have connected by understanding people.

Oprah Winfrey said, “Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” That care for people, to understand and encourage them, isn’t that what we often find lacking in the self-interested Westminster world of political game-playing?

Barack Obama said, “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”


3. Humility

This is linked to self-awareness, and often can mean knowing the limits of your expertise and the need to bring in others to do the work better. It is about knowing when and how to get help. But humility also allows frees you from the demands of ego and simply find the best people for the task, and then can give them the credit for their achievements. True long-term leadership comes from success of the operation not the individual, and it is built on deeply-held humility A certain Albert Einstein said, “Real genius is nothing else but the supernatural virtue of humility in the domain of thought.”

Also check out this:

4. Trust

“A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts,” said former PM Harold MacMillan Well indeed. And the worst kind of leader – of which there are plenty around – don’t trust people to get on with their jobs, they quiz them, act suspicious of them, and frequently take control to do it themselves. A lack of trust smacks of paranoia and insecurity. It puts everyone on edge and disempowers employees.

Napoleon is not the best person to quote, but fuck it, this rings perfectly true: “When I give a minister an order, I leave it to him to find the means to carry it out.”


5. Diversity

By which we mean diverse teams and diverse thinking. Multiple perspectives on any particular issue. Recent research shows diverse companies make far more money than those which have resisted change. This isn’t some ultra woke approach, it just makes perfect sense.

Christ, even Yuppie favourite Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, was an advocate of diverse thinking, or as he described it: “There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.”

Of course it’s not all about profits, it’s more like a philosophy for life. Maya Angelou simply said, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”

6. Discipline

This is not about getting up at 5am to do Tai Chi, then getting into the office by 6.30am to make everyone else seem like slackers. It is more the ability to keep business on track, to not be distracted and waylaid, and definitely not to career around like a shopping trolley. It’s about a cool head and a calm mind, and exhibiting a strength of character which imbues confidence in those around you.

“Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self-respect is the chief element in courage,” said Thucydides, the Greek historian.

This does not necessarily mean straight edge abstinence from alcohol, sex and fun. It’s more about winning the battles over your more negative instincts, which may tell you to cut corners, stop listening, give in and just gratify yourself.

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself…the height of a man’s success if gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment…and this law is the expression of eternal justice. He who cannot establish dominion over himself will have no dominion over others.”

Or check out Stanley Kubrick on his twin passions, which could be applied to any field: “If chess has any relationship to film-making, it would be in the way it helps you develop patience and discipline in choosing between alternatives at a time when an impulsive decision seems very attractive.”


7. Vision

This is perhaps a rarer commodity, but is something that can be learned: grasping the bigger picture, the ultimate aim. From this comes the ability to be inspirational and to be someone other people want to work for, because it is not simply about the leader, but what they want to do. And if a leader can establish what they want to do as a goal which captures the imagination of others as something worth fighting for, then people will do anything for them to achieve their vision.

General Montgomery said, “My own definition of leadership is this: The capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence.”

Or as the great German poet Goethe put it: “A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.”


8. Experience

Experience of failures as well as successes. Yet coupled to this is a confidence to be daring that comes from understanding the risks. In other words, you are willing to seek out more experience, to not stay within the confines of the known but to keep exploring. Others will come with you if you have experience, but the point is that you are in it with them, not setting people out on a limb to try and fail on their own.

Ken Kesey, as good a leader as there has ever been – particularly if you want to blow open your mind with acid – said, “You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.”

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