Understanding what makes a great leader

Barack Obama deals with leadership with ease, just 'bobbing-along' gracefully, even cracking a few jokes with news reporters, Dr Rice explains
Dr Des Rice

WHY is leadership so difficult for some, yet apparently so easy for others?

Barack Obama is just ending eight years in what is possibly the hardest leadership role in the world. He has achieved some seemingly impossible goals, for example, on healthcare reform.

No matter what one might think of his politics, Barack Obama is by dint of his office a world leader. And yet he seems to be able to do this with ease, just "bobbing-along" gracefully, even cracking a few jokes with news reporters.

So what can we learn from those who hold great office? And why - despite best intentions - do some of us struggle at improving leadership skills?

There's an aphorism stating 'great leaders are born' - but thankfully that isn't born out by science. Research shows that only one-third of leadership competence is inherited; the other two-thirds are developed by learning and adopting the skills and behaviours that good leaders possess (things like emotional Intelligence, passion and persistence).

So what are the characteristics of good leaders?

Good leaders are good at creating and delivering both a strategic vision and an implementation plan. This requires them to be extraordinarily good at communicating and encouraging dialogue with their team.

Good leaders are excellent at listening deeply and reflectively on the opinions and concerns of their team.

Good leaders are effective at helping their teams see ways to overcome hurdles. They don't just impose their plans on people.

Good leaders speak with passion, belief and enthusiasm about the purpose of the business (or division) and about what is possible. They don't wait to have success before doing this, they behave successfully right away. This creates a culture of not just "yes we can" but "yes we are".

Good leaders role-model the attitudes and behaviours that generate success. These include being gracious and showing gratitude to everyone who is contributing to success. This, together with their active listening ability, leaves others feeling understood and thus valued.

Good leaders can speak-straight without dominating others. They support their team in achieving big goals by calmly holding them to account without domination. This means having a supportive performance management system in place, which helps identify and remove obstacles to success.

Last but not least, good leaders have emotional intelligence. They stay calm and centred, no matter what. This means they can be assertive without being aggressive (and if they do "lose it" they apologised quickly).

Many who find leadership a struggle spend too much time managing others, and even doing the jobs of others, rather than focusing on the big picture.

The journey towards good leadership begins with learning and mastering the appropriate skills and behaviours. This takes time, persistence, and learning from the mistakes.

Like becoming a good president of the United States of America, or a good golfer or a good husband, becoming a great leader means knowing what skills and behaviours are needed and then practising these time and again.

:: Dr Des Rice is partner at Creating Collaborative Organisations (


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