Successful leadership: when elements combine

We’ve all come across ‘great leaders’, people who just seem to ‘get it right’ all of the time. Whether that’s ensuring that an organisation achieves and surpasses its objectives; maintaining employee morale in both the good times and the bad or creating environments where everyone feels able to, and willingly gives of, their best. Ultimately the value skilled leaders bring to an organisation should never be underestimated.

Unsurprisingly leadership remains a top priority for organisations. And whether it’s investing in developing future leaders or engaging headhunters to find a particular leader, the truth is that organisations spend billions each year on leadership. However, despite all this investment a high proportion of leaders who have previously succeeded fail when they move organisation or take on new positions internally. So why is this?

Surely an individual with a proven leadership track record should be able to transplant those skills and use them to great effect regardless of where they find themselves? Unfortunately this is not necessarily the case. History is pitted with examples of leaders who excelled in one environment but struggled in another. The most obvious example of this is Churchill. Renowned as a great war time leader but unable to deliver the type of leadership needed post-war. The business world too has exposed the sometimes one-dimensional nature of leaders and highlighted the need for leaders to understand the type of organisational environments or cultures in which they will thrive. Conversely it’s also identified the need for organisations to better qualify the leadership needed to deliver results.

Are good leaders born or made?

This age old question around whether leaders are born or made always stokes heated debate. And despite an abundance of research, the answer remains inconclusive. Whilst it is widely accepted that some individuals do have traits and abilities that make them a ‘natural leader’, it’s also very evident that motivated, hard-working individuals who are provided with the right framework can develop these skills over time. In both cases however, too many organisations believe that they are getting the finished article; someone who will fit seamlessly into their organisation and drive them to future success, without paying enough attention to other the other factors that contribute to leadership success.

The leadership trap

Potentially part of the challenge is the microscopic focus on the individual as opposed to other elements needed to create successful leaders. You only have to type ‘leadership books’ into Amazon to understand this point. 289,997 results are returned (more by the time you read this). Many will contain great nuggets of insightful information. Others may regale the reader with biographical information around how an individual took a struggling organisation to the top. It’s easy therefore to look at this information and try to replicate the approach – ‘what’s worked here will work there’ and so on. After all, those in leadership positions are products of their wider environment and previous experiences and will understandably look to recreate previous positive outcomes using similar approaches.

However, leadership is continually evolving and whilst good leaders must have a voracious appetite to learn, the organisation must provide the environment and mechanisms to help them succeed.

Reputation alone is not enough

Leadership skills, inherent or developed can take an individual so far, however for there to be real success, other factors have to align. As such, reputation alone should not be used as a determiner of future success. Understanding what it is your organisation needs to achieve, identifying the internal barriers for achieving this and also considering the culture of the organisation will help inform the type of leader and leadership required. Organisations therefore need to be more objective and potentially more critical in how they appoint and promote leaders, starting with the end goal and accepting that sometimes you will need to go outside of the organisation to get the right leadership for the business.

Organisations need to recognise this far more than would appear to be the case at the moment. Failure to pay attention to these critical factors in addition to leadership capability and style can actually be counterproductive to what you are trying to achieve, causing far reaching damage to the organisation and the individual.

Being a great leader is very much like a chemical reaction, with all of the critical elements coming together at the right time. However for this organisations need to provide the right environment for leaders to excel. And leaders have to be responsible and have enough self-awareness to understand the types of environments or challenges best suited to their leadership strengths and style; and not be afraid to step aside or respectfully decline opportunities to which they are not best suited.