Ask ten different leaders what the qualities of a good leader are, and you may have ten contrasting answers depending on context, personality and role.
But are there some qualities that we can all agree on?
Perhaps. And perhaps we could start by asking the question, “what are the qualities of a leader that you would like to be led by?”.
Another interesting question to ask ourselves is, “what is it like to me led by me?”.
The world is a very different place from where leadership styles and models defining the qualities of a good leader were first developed largely based on the military.
In the military courageous, controlling, commanding, directive and strong willed leaders are needed, but these are now very out-dated and often lead to poor performance in the current context.
In contrast we need qualities for what is no doubt a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world where team members desire to work creatively and autonomously.
In this blog, we are looking at leadership though a particular lens; the lens of “thinking environments” where thinking is respected by leaders.
Respecting thinking improves performance, reduces poor decision-making, increases purpose, improves feelings of being valued and heard, and brings about team coherence, focus, time efficiency, engagement, and diversity. These elements I believe are those required by organisations now and in the future.
Once we have established what these ‘thinking environments’ look like, we can then look at the qualities of a good leader that bring them about.
In a thinking environment, no one is interrupted, everyone is listened to with complete attention, and everyone is seen as equally capable of providing outstanding and vital contributions of thought.
A Thinking Meeting
In her book, “Time to think”, Nancy Kline looks in detail at “thinking environments” and how some leadership characteristics encourage thinking whilst other leadership characteristics discourage thinking.
Imagine a meeting where everyone is given the subject matter beforehand in order to arrive at the meeting ready to contribute and having thought through what they are going to say. Notice how this in contrast to a principle of rewarding those who can ‘think on their feet’ and find quick ideas, which though not necessarily the best or most thought through, possibly make sense at the time.
Now imagine a meeting that begins with everyone taking turns to speak, and where they must not be interrupted. Everyone speaks until they are finished and then they stop. Imagine knowing that when you speak you do not have to be concerned that when you take a breath someone will come in with a counter point or even just their own point.
In practice, these meetings are actually shorter in time, not longer.
In this setting the most dominant are not able to dominate with their ideas, but everyone is valued and heard. Imagine the new possibility of ideas and thinking that could transform your organisation. Imagine all the thinking that at present is unheard instead of impacting on projects and client outcomes.
In a thinking meeting, whilst people are talking uninterrupted, rather than thinking about what they want to say next everyone else has only one role, to listen intently.
It is the qualities of a good leader that are needed to bring this about; let’s contrast two very different meetings.
So what qualities of a good leader do we need to produce such a thinking environment as Nancy Kline details in her book?
We need qualities that can often feel very different to the ones we may have established in our own leadership, qualities that may challenge our very identity as a leader. Qualities that we may need the support and challenge of an excellent external coach to help develop.
Writers such as Jim Colins, Simon Sinek, Micheal Bungey-Stanier, Stephen Covey, Patrick Lencioni, Nancy Kline and Daniel Coleman have suggested this looks like:
“One of the criticisms I've faced over the years is that I'm not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I'm empathetic, it means I'm weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” Jacinda Ardern
“What is it like to be led by you?”
Nancy Kline, “Time to think”
“The Trusted Executive” by John Blakey
“The Coaching Habit” by Micheal Bungey-Stanier
“Good to Great” by Jim Collins
“The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni
“Start with Why” by Simon Sinek