They say great leaders are born not made and to some extent that’s true, but you can hone inherent skills and learn to leverage personal traits. Challenging times like those we are experiencing right now have proven in the past to be where would-be leaders have stepped into the spotlight. This may well be your day.

If you don’t have the basics it’s probably a bit late to make the Corona crisis your coming-out party, but it’s winner-takes-all for those with the right instincts. So you’ve really nothing to lose. This is what it takes.

1. Great leaders have charisma

Great leaders have charisma. All the really successful leaders I have worked with had an X-factor. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but they somehow manage to make you feel connected. I doubt this is something you can fabricate, you either have it or you don’t, but there’s maybe a chance that you can get some way there if you can muster at least some of the others.

2. Listen like a leader

Listening is a skill and it’s an important ingredient of leadership. Don’t you find you gravitate towards people who you feel take the time to listen to what you have to say?  I suggest you start honing your listening skills. Once you learn to listen you may well find yourself understanding other people better, which is a step towards empathy and that’s an important ingredient too.

3. Great leaders demonstrate candour

The great Jack Welch describes candour as “The biggest dirty little secret in  business”. He may be right. Without it an organisation is slow, unresponsive and lacks innovation yet it’s a rare trait, which makes me wonder why many businesses have enjoyed the success they have. It’s not the same as transparency, but some of the reasons why it’s futile to try to avoid the need to be candid are the same. 

It’s important not to let attempts at tact stand in the way of candour. Sometimes you just have to say it like it is. I’ve seen business leaders dance around an issue for fear of upsetting people only to see their business suffer because nobody understands the problem.

It works the other way too. If your leader obviously places great importance on wrapping the facts in cotton wool you soon find that subordinates run in fear of upsetting the boss by being frank. This is a real problem in the digital age where it’s essential for leaders to get the unadulterated viewpoint of diverse representatives of stakeholders. Unhindered communication is the key to the quick responses essential to success. People at all levels of an organisation have to be involved in strategy development, so it’s essential for leaders to remove any barriers that might prevent them expressing their viewpoints.

There are no hiding places in the digital paradigm either, so if you are less than straight with the world outside your boardroom you can be sure the truth will always find you out and, as we all must have learned by now, if people think you are less than honest your business will suffer. Better just to be straightforward all the time than be revealed as anything less than up-front. Learn the art of candour and you’ll gain supporters and waste far less time and money down dead-end streets.

4. Take the broader perspective

Great leaders also manage to view things from a broader perspective. They seem to occupy a higher vantage point from where they can warn others of the long-term implications of their short-term actions. 

Watching our politicians play out the Covid crisis makes you realise how important this is. Many of their short-term responses, while seeming to fix a problem, have created more. The experience is just like that in which businesses can find themselves when trying to compete in the digital economy. 

Whether it is Covid19 or digital disruption, we are all learning on the hoof, making decisions and changing and amending as we go. There are no plug-and-play answers, we’ve not experienced anything like this before.  This is the era of the “adaptive manager” that Ronald Heifetz told us of, but it pays to have a look-out and that’s where perspective comes into its own.

5. Great leaders don’t let pride get in their way.

One of the most negative traits in business today is misplaced pride. I’m not talking about having pride in what you do. We should all have that. What I am referring to is the pride that some senior executives have that prevents them from admitting they are fallible.

Today’s marketplace is subject to forces that today’s legacy leaders have no instinct for. This doesn’t mean they can’t understand if things are explained, but they are not second nature to them as they are for digital natives.

Legacy leaders have earned their stripes in an era where leadership was synonymous with dictatorship. Leaders like this become embarrassed at the thought of junior employees knowing stuff they don’t. This drives them to block initiatives adopt a “not invented here” philosophy that can only be destructive. They’ve always done things their way and if they are still around they have probably been right more often than not. So this is understandable even if its incorrect.

The thing is, in the digital age not a lot of this counts. What matters instead is that leaders accept their limitations in the new digital environment and play to their real strengths – experience and industry knowledge. The digital business scene is no place for this kind of pride.

6. Great leaders are facilitators

Armed with experience and knowledge the great leaders of the digital age have become facilitators. These two traits alone give them the ability to unlock doors and guide those with digital instinct through the business minefield, taking pride in the success it brings.

One of the most important features of a successful digital-age business is innovation. It has to be constant and a smart leader knows that to maintain the necessary pace they must engage, not only employees at every level in the organisation, but representatives from suppliers and distributers in their innovation and strategy development process. 

Some of today’s most successful companies achieve this with an associate board of members like this. There may be other solutions, but there’s no escaping the need for diversity. If this is to work leaders must encourage participation, maintain a spirit of openness, eliminate hierarchies and use their experience and knowledge to give ideas the best possible chance. 

So, do you have what it takes to be a leader in the digital economy? Or, maybe you can think of other traits, as apposed to skills, that a legacy leader could have that will enable them to contribute to the success of their business in these tough times and in years to come?

Phil Darby
May 4, 2020

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