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How to Be a Great Leader – Mind Tools Expert Voices

October 20, 2021

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Imagine this. You’re driving for work late one evening when your car breaks down on a lonely road.

You call the office for advice, and it’s your boss who picks up the phone.

What happens next?

A Lesson in Leadership

l was in that exact situation about thirty years ago, shortly after starting my first real job.

I’d been sent out in an unfamiliar company car, and for some reason I hadn’t spotted that it was nearly out of gas. By the time it finally spluttered to a halt, I was on a deserted country road, night was falling, and there was no one around to help.

When my phone call was answered, and it was the manager of my team – a senior leader in the whole organization – my heart sank for a moment.

But instead of tearing into me, pointing out how stupid I’d been, or even just handing me off to someone else, John chuckled, told me not to worry, and asked how he could help.

A few minutes later he’d arranged for a local garage to come and refuel the car as soon as they could. And, to save me waiting, he’d set off on his motorbike to bring me home.

Leadership That Lasts

I learned a lot about John’s leadership that night. Over the next few years, he further established himself as a great leader in my eyes – by what he did, but also by the sort of person he was.

And when I listened to our latest Expert Voices podcast this week, I recognized in John’s personal attributes many of the leadership traits mentioned by our guests. The kinds of things that make you remember someone’s leadership three decades on.

Lessons From Expert Voices

Mind Tools Expert Voices is the podcast series where we delve into our 200+ Expert Interviews, to explore a particular question or theme.

In episode four, “How to Be a Great Leader,” my colleague Rachel Salaman gets insights and ideas from experts including Frances Frei, Ashley Goodall and Fred Kiel. They tell her what’s special about the best leaders – and how we can be more like them.

In this snippet from the latest Expert Voices episode, our guests highlight some of the key leadership traits needed in today’s workplace.

A Servant Leader

In my moment of need, John helped. He did that by listening properly to what my problem was, talking to me about what he could do – and then doing it. It didn’t matter that he was way above me in the company hierarchy, or that he had a hugely challenging and time-consuming job. When my call came in, I was his priority.

Leadership professor Sen Sendjaya calls this “servant leadership.” It takes humility, the willingness to admit to your own mistakes, and the commitment to support your people to do their best. “It’s not being inferior, but it’s also not being superior,” Sen tells Rachel in the podcast. Servant leaders know their own strengths and weaknesses. So they can also help others to understand theirs.

Leading by Example

John often deferred to people who were better at something than him. He gave us all appropriate opportunities to grow, and was happy for us to shine.

But he was also very good at the core aspects of his job. Executive coach Ashley Goodall highlights this as a key leadership trait. “You’re following them because they’re really good at something that you care about,” he says of great leaders. “That removes a little bit of your doubt about the future, a little bit of your uncertainty.”

A key part of John’s leadership power was his consistency – another trait mentioned by many of our podcast guests. He was always calm in a crisis, and his down-to-earth approach to decision making meant that we all understood his thinking. We knew where we stood with him, whether it was a minor matter or something that would affect the whole business. In the words of leadership consultant Kate Sweetman, during some turbulent times, he was “one of those rocks you wish you had.”

He wasn’t a pushover, though. He made tough calls when he had to, and held us all accountable in our roles. But he did so in a relentlessly positive way – what Susan Scott calls “holding people able.” He set us high targets, believed that we could achieve them, and his confidence rubbed off.

What’s more, he modeled accountability himself. He was highly visible in his own contributions, but also disarmingly honest if he ever failed to deliver. He encouraged us to be open about our mistakes – like my failure with the fuel gauge – and to learn from them. According to influential author Fred Kiel, too many leaders see that as a show of weakness, when it’s really “… a sign of tremendous strength.”

An Authentic Leader

More than anything, John was real. He shared stories from outside work, took part in social events, and leveled with us whenever he could. Leadership coach Bruna Martinuzzi says that. “… without authenticity or integrity a leader has no credibility.”

And fellow podcast guest Frances Frei, from Harvard Business School, says that authenticity creates valuable trust within teams. “You’re more likely to trust me if you get a sense that I am really in it for you and for the broader group.”

That was certainly true with John. We weren’t friends with him (even if we’d been rescued on his motorbike!). He was still our boss. But we all saw his empathic and supportive behavior in action. It brought us together as a team – firmly behind him as our leader.

Put Your Leadership to the Test

I’ve known other great leaders since John (and some not-so-great ones!). When I think about the best of the bunch, the same defining characteristics keep coming up: humility, consistency, accountability, authenticity. And, perhaps more than anything, the willingness to listen to someone in their moment of need, and the instinct to offer the right kind of help.

So Rachel’s podcast guests chime with my own experiences. They’ve also given me ways to lift my own leadership skills. I recommend you have a listen, too, to better understand the people who lead you – and maybe raise your own game.

But if you do want to impress me as a leader, you’ll always have to pass my “motorbike test.”

If I phoned you after hours from a dark roadside, how would you respond?

Listen to the Latest Episode of Mind Tools Expert Voices

Mind Tools Club Members and Corporate Licensees can listen to the full Expert Voices podcast now.

If you’re not a Mind Tools member, you can join the Mind Tools Club and gain access to our 2,400+ resources, including a range of audio features. For corporate licensing, ask for a demo with one of our team.

What Makes a Great Leader? Have Your Say!

Which personal characteristics are crucial for leaders? What is it about the best leaders that makes people want to follow them? Please share your experiences, insights and tips, below.


4 thoughts on “How to Be a Great Leader – Mind Tools Expert Voices

  1. Shaheena wrote:

    Amazing article,great tips.I suggest people to go through the biography of Prophet Muhammad pbuh and discover the great leadership qualities which can be adapted in each and every aspect of our lives.

    1. Sonia Harris wrote:

      Thanks, Shaheena. We’re glad you enjoyed the tips. If you don’t mind, please share with us which leadership qualities of Prophet Muhammad stand out to you most.

      Qualities of one particular nonprofit, membership organization leader whom I admired include: forward-thinking, solid corporate business background, personable with “regular” members, and embracing technology. Unlike her colleagues, she engaged a lot with the younger generation: chatting with us online and allowing us to call her with any questions. (She has since passed away. I miss that interaction.)

      –Sonia, Mind Tools team

  2. Russell John Foote wrote:

    I believe that quality and effective leadership over time is strongly influenced by personality, that is, the quality of social, moral, emotional, spiritual and cultural capital that an individual brings to the position. When each of these is above average such a person will be able to relate well with employees at all levels of the organization and will be able to function well in any situation. Personality in such a form is more effective than qualifications and any other variable. Previous experiences in similar positions do not always serve to enhance these personality dimensions. In fact, evaluations of leaders and managers would be better served/ more effective if they prove more deeply into these personality dimensions.

    1. Sonia Harris wrote:

      Well stated, Russell. I agree with you that personality can be more effective than qualifications. You can train someone who lacks experience, but you cannot give them character (a personality). I had never considered breaking down what makes someone’s personality, and these five areas you’ve shared bring dimension. THANK YOU!

      -Sonia, Mind Tools team

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