Four skills all business leaders need

In today’s challenging environment, the role and expectations of leadership are changing

WHAT do Margaret Thatcher, Mahatma Gandhi and former GE chairman Jack Welch have in common? According to a recent PwC survey, they have all exhibited leadership skills that today’s global chief executives most admire. Yet the demands of leaders today have evolved since Thatcher’s era. And the top-down relationship between leaders and followers has been broken down by the revolution in digital communications, and the extention of work beyond company boundaries.

Of the thousands of leadership books now available to aspiring executives, many focus on good character traits like the ability to inspire others and create a vision. “But in reality, many core leadership skills require knowledge of other aspects of organisational life, such as political intelligence and persuasiveness,” says Andre Spicer of Cass Business School. Here’s a brief guide.

As much as we all love to be liked, being too nice can hurt your business. Leaders today are under significant pressure to be relatable and “human,” but when it comes to making tough decisions that serve the company, a firm and surgical approach is necessary. Yet Sir Richard Branson contests the view that nice guys finish last. “It’s counterproductive to be ruthless,” he said in a recent interview. Indeed, he believes his friendly approach has “helped me over the years to attract and retain good partners and staff”.

Self-awareness may not have featured in the qualities PwC’s respondents most admired (“a strong vision” came out top), but it’s an important secondary skill that enables the higher-octane ones to work. “Good leaders are able to periodically revisit and revise their ideas and assumptions,” Spicer says. Indeed, it’s all too easy to find a leadership style and stick to it, with little thought for how you can improve and grow. “Some might think leadership is all about commanding the troops. This idea may have worked in the past, but does not seem to work in the present,” says Spicer. Yet, he thinks, self-knowledge enables leaders to be better equipped to cope with challenging situations.

Further, effective leaders know their limitations. “Keep in mind that you are not always the best person to do a task that lands on your desk,” says Bankable Leadership author Dr Tasha Eurich.

Indeed, successful leaders know that you don’t have to sleep at your desk to effectively guide employees. Yet many fail to make the distinction between “manager” and “leader”. “Managers control business activities; the job of a leader is to lead – not do everything yourself,” says leadership author John Alizor. For the conscientious leader, however, delegating isn’t always easy. If you’re really struggling, try keeping a daily diary of how you spend your time. “After a week, you’ll likely find that a lot of time is spent on low-leverage activities that can be delegated,” professor Jeffrey Pfeffer recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

The ability to detect unknown threats and opportunities can make or break a business. Strategic leaders must be vigilant, flexible, and able to anticipate by scanning the environment for indicators of change. “Talk to your customers, suppliers and other partners to understand their challenges,” Paul Schoemaker, Steve Krupp and Samantha Howland recently told HBR.

Another way to adapt to ambiguous conditions is to delegate risk to your employees. Brad Smith, president of US software firm Intuit, champions a culture where staff can take risks and grow by learning from success and failure. “It operates like a collection of startups,” says Jack Preston of Virgin.

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