In the old days, leadership was really about management – treating people like robots to get the most out of them. But that doesn’t work any more. Author and consultant Kate Fuelling says leadership today is far more human focused, treating people as people and not machines. We spoke about the changing nature of leadership and looked at what skills you need to develop to become a great leader.
“Leaders these days are like parents,” Fuelling said. “As parents, we want the best for our children. We want them to be the best they can be. We want them to better than we were. We want them to succeed. That’s what I see as a good leader”.
Fuelling says one of the key attributes of today’s best leaders is bravery.
“One of the key things is being brave for yourself and for the people you are leading”.
Being prepared to try and fail, to give others the leeway to do things you don’t agree with to see what happens and standing up to the status quo and not accepting “that’s the way it’s always been done” as a reason for doing things are all ways you can practically exhibit bravery and show leadership even if your position on the org chart doesn’t automatically label you as a leader. Even politely disagreeing at a meeting is a way to be a leader.
“It’s about being brave with the big stuff and the small stuff,” she added.
Sometimes, that bravery can be exhibited in creative ways. For example, Fuelling said that Shayne Elliot, the CEO of the ANZ Bank, puts himself in the spotlight in order to engage with customers and staff in quite overt ways through zany videos. And while there are some who think his behaviour is ill-conceived given the recent Royal Commission into banking he is confronting the image of the bank as a conservative bastion.
Sometimes, that bravery can be exhibited by simply changing how something is done. One business unit director Fuelling has worked with allowed a staff member, who had moved house, to work from home twice a week to ease the challenges of a long commute rather than lose them from his team. That was perceived negatively by many as the company had never embraced teleworking before but he has stuck to his position in the face of criticism.
“Bravery is about doing something that’s aligned to your values every day and doesn’t pander to the politics and toxic culture of an organisation”.
Qualities of great leaders
When it comes to identifying great leaders, Fuelling says we get it wrong far more than we get it right. What a person does in one place may not work in another. Or the reason one leader works well could be down to a specific set of circumstances as well as their personal qualities.
For example, while Tim Cook has proven to be a successful CEO at Apple, would he have been as successful if the transition from Steve Jobs’ leadership had been chaotic instead of ordered?
So, what are some of the other qualities good leaders show? While there’s no magical formula there are some other attributes that Fuelling sees as important.
Curiousity: Looking outwards towards what the future holds and moving forward to meet it rather than getting hit by it.
Kindness: Being kind matters.
Generosity: Be generous with your time, feedback and praise.
Optimism: Optimists have more fulfilled lives, are happier and healthier, and get more things done said Fuelling. I asked her how she teaches people, through her consulting proactive, to become more optimistic.
“It’s about questioning their ‘go to’. We’ll do a scenario and ask them ‘How do you feel in this situation?'”
For example, what if someone crashed into your car and left a note apologising with all their contact details? You could either be angry and upset or thankful that they left a note and will pay to fix the damage. Then it’s about looking at how that decision affects the rest of your day.
“It’s about looking at the knock-on effect of that one response and then doing it again with an optimistic perspective”.
Some of today’s leaders
Looking at some of the most well-known leaders today, Fuelling says she thinks Mark Zuckerberg has a mixed scorecard.
“I’m in two minds about him. I feel like he’s trying to do the right thing. Perhaps he is the person we blame when there’s a bigger issue. I can’t paint him as a good guy or a bad guy”.
In contrast, Fuelling had some strong views on how Amazon’s Jeff Bezos exhibits leadership publicly.
“He doesn’t pay taxes in the US – he doesn’t give back in that way. And his workers are not paid a good wage”.
Instead of exhibiting kindness and generosity he’s “screwing the system” and “not batting an eyelid”.
Practical things you can do to “learn” leadership
If you want to be seen as a leader, there are some practical things you can do. Fuelling says you need to start by being generous. Before you ask someone for something, do something for them. Be generous with your time and expertise. Be supportive when doing that, helping people with their work, but not overbearing where you start to take over.
Planning is also a critical skill. Start at the outcome and work backwards. Great leaders can identify where they want to go and then work backwards from that point to form a plan. For example, look at your annual goal and then create monthly plans. Each month, break that into weekly goals and each week create daily goals. Each day, create a plan for those daily goals.
Communications skills are also critical. Being able to listen and reflect on what you hear and being able to convey messages clearly is a skill that can be developed. That covers written, verbal and visual communication that is tailored to different audiences and engages them.
It’s been said that leaders are born and not made. But that’s not true. You can develop skills and become a leader. Just as some people are naturally talented at a sport and others succeed through hard work, the same can be said for leadership.