On the journey towards building a high performance culture and strongly engaged workforce, no one disagrees that leadership is a crucial factor. So what makes people choose to follow; to pledge their allegiance on some level to another person? It can be simply summed up in one word: Character.
But the word has so many connotations and interpretations that it's easy to lose sight of the essential qualities that all truly inspirational leaders possess.
Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones condensed 30 years of research into four "myth busters" of leadership, to which we've added a fifth: Not everyone can be a leader.
Many executives lack the necessary qualities of emotional intelligence (particularly self-knowledge and authenticity) that are vital to effective leadership. In addition, many talented employees are simply not interested in taking on the job or choose never to rise beyond a certain level because they're on too good a wicket in their current role to want to change.
Leaders deliver business results
If this were true, your leaders would be obvious: Pick the people who get the best results. It's just not that simple. Depending on the maturity of your market, product life-cycle and market position, you may succeed very well with competent managers rather than great leaders.
People who get to the top are leaders
Many people at the top achieve their status through political savvy above any other avenue. By definition, leaders are people who have followers.
This means that they can be found at any level of the organisation. There is a big gap between leadership that is bestowed by the company and that which is informally ascribed by the people within the business.
Leaders are great coaches
Coaching has rapidly evolved over the last decade from a cottage industry through certification into a management core competency. But inspiring the troops and transferring technical excellence are two entirely different things. The typical
corporate leader is presented as the 'visionary' who excites others through big-picture thinking, rather than their one-on-one mentoring talents.
Leadership and management are diametrically opposed
How often have you heard the cliche, "Managers do things right, but leaders do the right things"? Nice, homespun, folksy wisdom, but it's a false simplicity. Management is not just about efficiency, nor leadership just about effectiveness.
Managers can be leaders, and your staff training and development programs should offer a path that continually grooms emerging candidates for such challenges.
So what are the non-negotiable characteristics of truly inspirational leadership? In 2000, Goffee and Jones identified the four 'less obvious' qualities that all leaders must have in order to be truly inspirational:
Understanding and exposing their weaknesses: This does not mean great leaders have warm and fuzzy tell-all sessions that leave both them and their organisations open to competitor attack. Inspirational leaders know their blind spots and selectively reveal them in a way that makes them more human and approachable. Especially in our tall poppy culture, staff want to follow authentic people, not cardboard cut-outs.
Intuition: Inspirational leaders place great stock in "going with their gut", based on their ability and skills in collating and interpreting the "soft data".
Tough empathy: Inspirational leaders have a deep passion for the work staff do, but are also able to realistically care for them in a work environment.
Differentiation: Inspirational leaders are masters of using their unique qualities to maximise opportunities for the business. Whether a sense of humour, an ability to absorb, analyse and dissect large amounts of data or any other attribute, inspirational leaders know who they are and how they best contribute.
It can be very discouraging to be confronted with the reality of what it takes to be a truly inspirational leader. The level of personal maturity, courage and conviction required to lead in a way that others will follow is not easily gained.
Accurately assessing your current level of leadership potential, recognising your weaknesses and being willing to change to grow are not light issues. The upside is that leaders are most certainly made, not born. There are key skills that anyone can learn and apply. The challenge of identifying and releasing inspirational leaders is both significant and vital to a company's long-term survival and profitability.
Editor's note: Grant Burley, director of absoluteIT http://www.absoluteit.co.nz, welcomes comments and suggestions to this column. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 04 460 0515.