THE BLOG

What Makes a Leader Truly Great?

25/09/2013 08:55 BST | Updated 22/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Earlier this week, I had quite a bit of time to kill at a US airport whilst my plane was delayed. Having exhausted the delights of the lounge, I retreated to the bookstore (which is fortunately still there, hanging on from what I could tell by mainly selling inflatable pillows and headphones). Browsing through the NYT bestsellers list at the front of the bookstore, I came across what initially looked like just another book on leadership - The Leadership Contract by Vince Molinaro. That was until I read the back cover and had a bit of a flashback.

It turns out that Molinaro was inspired to write the book after having watched his mentor die of cancer - a tragedy he blamed on working in an organisation with a toxic leadership culture. My own mentor - the late, great Philip Gould - was himself taken by cancer two years ago this November. He did not blame his untimely death on toxic leadership, but was certainly deeply preoccupied with the concept of principled leadership and the challenge that leaders face in today's skeptical and ever-changing world. Some of the terminology that Molinaro used on the back cover of his book took me back to the weekly Friday morning strategy sessions that Philip used to hold here at freuds, ostensibly to crowdsource insights from his team, but in truth an opportunity for us to learn something about whatever was on his mind that week.

Leadership was a regular theme. Philip's mantra was that leadership has never been more difficult, and yet at the same time it's also never been more important. He often talked about the duality of challenge that today's leaders face - between the pressures of the short term and the burden of the long term. He called this the defining leadership task of our time.

He believed that at a moment when we are all feeling so let down by those in positions of power; when the world is more complex and interconnected than ever before; when we are only just starting to feel the impact of radical transparency; what the world needs more than ever is strong leaders.

In one of our new business presentations, I recall him postulating that: "It is now the fundamentals that matter most, and if as a leader you stay close to them, act with purpose and remain committed to the truth, you will not only survive the storm of immediacy, but also achieve the long-term change that you seek."

For Philip it was the architecture of leadership that was most interesting. Great leaders, he observed, almost always have a sharply-defined and clearly-articulated core purpose, which provides them with a compass-like sense of direction. This provides a rock to protect against turbulence and build long-term trust in uncertain times. In Philip's leadership model, the core is surrounded by a flexible and adaptive strategy, designed to react to short-term trends and ensure ongoing relevance.

Molinaro explores some of these bigger themes, aligning with much of Philip's thinking, but then gets into the real nitty gritty of what it actually takes to be a leader. He structures his book around what he calls the 'terms of the leadership contract'. His thesis being that in most instances where leadership has gone wrong, it is generally because leaders do not understand or openly acknowledge what it is that they are signing up for. He argues that leaders often sleep walk into a position of responsibility and fail to understand the magnitude of the role that they have taken on.

Given this argument, Molinaro is an advocate of leaders setting out a manifesto of their aspirations right at the outset of their tenure - so that no one (either the leaders or the led) is under any illusions. This is a technique the business world has borrowed from the political environment. When a political leader is making a bid for the big job, the first thing they usually do is set out their stall in the form of a manifesto. This is because, at least on the surface, they have to secure democratic support for their vision in order to secure the top job in the first place. In the business world, leadership is rarely democratic - leaders therefore often feel they have little need to explain their aspiration to a wide audience.

By borrowing this technique from politics and voluntarily acknowledging the importance of key audiences, business leaders stand far more chance of building trust internally and externally. I believe that it is through the adoption of a new democratic leadership model that tomorrow's business leaders will empower their employees and the public - winning their attention, their trust, and - crucially - their support in changing the status quo.