I recently took part in a discussion about leadership.  A top research organisation was presenting some initial findings of whom members of the public considered to be leaders and what they thought the characteristics of leadership actually were.  Many of the usual suspects, like Churchill, figured highly as well as a few less likely people such as Princess Diana.  And given the public’s ideas of who most personified the idea of leadership it came as no great surprise that the top two characteristics identified were integrity and decisiveness.

The discussion itself was lively and centred mainly around whether true leadership was about dynamic, energetic decision-making or more about nurturing, empowering and team-building.  It struck me that there is a consensus growing around the idea that leadership is less about doing per se and more about creating the climate in which things can be done.  Slowly but surely the myth that leaders are born and that they a special breed is being debunked.  The purposeful walkers and strategic decision-makers are becoming to be seen as less capable of true leadership.

Society today is increasingly complex.  Issues rarely fit into nice neat boxes. Binary yes or no scenarios have given way to various shades of grey.  It’s often all about context and all about nuance. Navigating through the various ‘what ifs’ requires a greater level of understanding and emotional maturity than the traditional, uncompromising, ‘just do it’ school of management.  The leadership qualities required to succeed in such environments are often the softer ones including empathy, listening and, most importantly, team building.

One particular point was raised that I’ve been thinking about a great deal since.  A participant said that in tough times what people wanted most was decisive leadership. I can understand that point: it is indeed what most people want.  However, it is often not what they need.  What they need most is vision, understanding and a sense of direction.  They need to understand the context and what they need to do as a result.  It was Kennedy who said that rather than asking what your country can do for you, one should ask “…what you can do for your country.” Too often we see that decisive leadership can create a dependency culture.  In many organisations decisions are upwardly delegated leading to both paralysis and the creation of personality cults around the leader.  Society and organisations need more people to recognise that true leadership is for everyone and not just for a clique of the ambitious. True leadership is about taking control of ones own life and surroundings and making a positive contribution.  It is not about waiting for someone else to decide for you.  And so for those who have risen to positions of influence and authority, their primary role must be to help create the right climate. Rather than being the telegenic, celebrity Chief Entertainment Officer, the true leaders are starting to see nurturing as their key role.