Leading through greatness – not perfection

I recently attended the first session of a not-for-profit leadership training in Chicago, generously funded by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. It was a wonderful opportunity to share experiences with 89 other leaders of NFPs from the UK and the US. It was also a time to reflect on leadership, what it looks like, and how to develop it.

Leadership, put simply, is the art of influencing others. It comes in many forms – and it does not always come with a job title! Look around your organisation, community, or family and you will see that many of the most influential people are not in ‘positions’ of leadership.

Our ideal of what great leadership looks like is influenced by celebrated and historical leaders; Ghandi, Martin Luther-King, Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, in that we can all draw inspiration from these giants. But also a curse because their legacy is so difficult to live up to.

The curse can be lifted, somewhat, if we remember that celebrated leaders are atypical. They tend to be resolute, single-minded, tireless, great orators and powerful communicators. For every extraordinary leader with these talents and attributes there are a thousand lesser mortals who still achieve great influence and unity of purpose through different means.

If, like me, you labour under the shadow of ‘great’ leaders, help comes in the form of the book Strength Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie. Their central theme is that effective leaders discover what they’re good at – and do more of it. Much of Strength based Leadership is based on the work of Donald O. Clifton who spent over 50 years researching the subject. He discovered that, although there are key attributes that leaders have, these are very rarely all displayed in one person. The most effective leaders seem to focus on the things they are good at. Paradoxically, leaders who tried to ‘cover all bases’ tend to be the least effective in their jobs.

The key message here is that leadership isn’t about perfection in all things, but being able to identify strengths and optimise performance in those areas. It suggests that strong leaders don’t spend time overly indulging their inner critic or dwelling on what they can’t achieve, but focus on the positive and the possible. Strong leaders are able to recognise their strengths and areas of weakness. They see the strengths and talents in others around them and develop and utilise these effectively to achieve goals.

Rath and Conchie also share recent Gallup Polls data on why people follow leaders. The data suggests that people tend to follow those who they trust, who show compassion, who provide stability, and who provide hope. In some ways I was surprised by the simplicity of these attributes and had, perhaps, expected more about vision, charisma and strength. It also brought me back to diversity in leadership, as these simple attributes can be communicated through the powerful oratory of a towering leader but equally through the simple, quiet, everyday actions of a colleague or friend.

At Friendship Works I want to ensure that we all understand what effective leadership looks like, that we nurture it in its various forms and that we are all able to harness our inner leaders to achieve the vision of our organisation. On a mentoring-related note, friendship is one of our core values and it’s fascinating to see that the Gallup research shows that some of the qualities of friendship (trust, compassion, continuity) are at the heart of effective leadership too.