A mentor having a light moment with his mentees. Leadership traits are needed to advance businesses.

Leadership qualities that make a difference

We talk to Jonathan Geldart, Director General of the Institute of Directors, about the importance of strong leadership in challenging times.

Leading the way in challenging times

What kind of leadership qualities are needed to take the country’s businesses forward in the face of ongoing economic and social challenges? Jonathan Geldart, Director General of the Institute of Directors, shared his thoughts and insights with us.

The mettle of business leadership across the UK has been truly tested by the logistical and economic pressures posed by Covid-19 and the transition to a new EU relationship, but looking to the future how will leaders get our businesses through the uncertainties that lie ahead?

Jonathan believes strong leadership is underpinned by three core qualities: being agile and encouraging agility; having the courage to take responsibility and giving it to others; and an ability to deliver clear and effective communication.

And, he believes, being a strong leader also means “leading from the middle” as well as the front – which involves acquiring a strong degree of ‘hands on’ day-to-day knowledge of an organisation – and recognising the value of teamwork.

Agility of thought and action

The advent of the pandemic has meant businesses have had to pivot to new ways of working more than they ever have before. Leadership teams have learned to make their organisations more agile and it seems that the enterprises that have succeeded best have also been the most agile.

Not only have leaders rethought their business models but they have started thinking very differently right across their organisations and have done so in super-fast time to meet the challenges of Covid-19.

Jonathan believes the ability to think differently under pressure, by and large, comes through investment in good training that enables leaders and staff to think differently.

Organisations that invested in employee training prior to the pandemic – in areas including technology and digital skills, for example – have been incredibly resilient and able to weather the storm better than others.

He says: “If leaders want their businesses to be agile then they have to be agile themselves and do everything they can to encourage their people to think in a different way to get them through change.”

Sharing responsibility

While it’s clear that leaders need to be able to take responsibility themselves, it’s easy to forget that responsibility is a two-way street that requires giving others true responsibility as well.

Empowering people in an organisation in this way is extremely important but they have to know what taking responsibility for their action actually means. For that to happen everyone also needs to be clear about out what it is they’ve been asked to do.

Jonathan explains: “During the pandemic, from governmental level, right down to the people who are putting needles in our arms, there's been clear communication on how people should behave, and as a result people are taking responsibility. You see this in the best organisations and the best teams; people taking responsibility and doing things that others maybe haven't done, seeing where things need to be done and doing them.”

So, leaders need to be really clear about how and to what extent they give people responsibility and that is primarily about good communications.

Communication, communication, communication

Strong leadership means ensuring that there is clear, unambiguous communication right through an organisation at every level and at all times, Jonathan argues.

This can, of course, be easier said than done and, at some point, every person and every organisation is guilty of communicating in a way that isn’t clear.

While Jonathan sees clarity of communication as essential to success and something that good leaders should enable and deliver, in reality this can sometimes be quite difficult to achieve. That means accepting our limitations, and the fact that sometimes the message won’t always be as clear as it needs to be.

Take the country's Covid-19 response for example; the UK Government determined a defined roadmap and exit from the pandemic and has been clear about what that means. Yet questions continue to arise about exactly what's going to happen as the available scientific data changes.

“Ultimately, clear communication is always dependent on the level and quality of information available,” he says. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing but an effective leader has to work with what they’ve got and endeavour to be as clear as possible about communicating goals while responding in an agile way to changing conditions.”

Direction and purpose

Leaders need to be clear about the direction their organisation is going in, it’s purpose, what it stands for and what’s expected from its people.

That involves using all the tools and technology at their disposal, setting goals and KPIs, and ensuring systems and processes are in place so that people understand their objectives and are able to measure themselves against them.

But being a good leader doesn’t just mean leading from the front

Jonathan says. “Sometimes it also means leading from the middle, by which I mean being a part of the process, talking with people regularly, getting their feedback and understanding what is happening in their part of the business.

“It's really important to be in touch with the organisation and its different component parts and achieving that means developing and encouraging a transparent and open culture where anyone is able to talk to anybody, from the chair to a junior member of staff.”

In this way, Jonathan believes leaders can gain a greater awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of their own organisation and people, and also their competitors – and armed with that, move to a position of strength.

He acknowledges however that it can be challenging to be in the thick of it and to remain empathetic while making hard business decisions – but making the effort pays dividends.

The importance of teamwork

Summing up, Jonathan says effective leadership involves exploiting a hugely complex suite of tools, driven by a clear sense of purpose in a compelling, genuine and authentic way. It’s about being agile, and communicating clearly, taking and giving responsibility and leading from both the front and from the middle.

“But in the final analysis, no one is perfect, irrespective of their experience and track record. Smart and confident leaders accept they’re going to make errors of judgement from time to time and take steps to offset that likelihood by building a strong team around them.

“In doing so, they recognise the person at the top of the organisation isn't actually the most important, because it’s the unit as a whole that makes the business work. At the end of the day their greatest strength is recognising that nobody is more important than the team.”

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