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Many facets of leadership - let us get serious!

Is leadership skill, practice or much more than that?


All of us as employees, as readers, as surfers or as people who have always attended seminars come across leadership examples, and stories and how we need to use these examples and stories to improve ourselves (and better so) and be seen as a leader.


In a series of write-ups, we will spotlight leadership with a specific focus on a few qualities that can help define leadership or help discover the leader in each one of us!


A simple google search on leadership throws the following (noun) from the oxford languages.

  1. the action of leading a group of people or an organization.

  2. the state or position of being a leader.

  3. the leaders of an organization, country, etc.

What was more interesting for me was the similar words that were thrown along with the search on leadership and those included: guidance, authority, control, management, direction, directorship, governance, influence, etc.


While these terms broadly tell us what we currently understand about leaders and leadership, they may not be the qualities that may be driving such behaviours. For example, when we say "direction" in the context of leadership, we know that anyone who calls himself a leader must provide direction whether he knows it or not!


So is everyone who shows direction, a leader or vice-versa every leader must show direction to prove his mettle as a leader. Now here we get to something interesting: the qualitative aspects of leadership and the qualities of a leader.


Why should we segregate the two? It's important so that we understand the difference between leadership and leader.


Qualitative aspects of leadership:


So in leadership when we talk qualitative, the idea is that the same proportion holds good whether you have the quantity (and the mass) or not. So we will list about ten (actually eleven) qualitative aspects of leadership - a not-so-exhaustive list - below and then discuss each of them in detail:

  1. Honesty is original

  2. Communication is a continuum

  3. Transparency is formal

  4. People matter

  5. Nothing is personal

  6. Vulnerability is accepted

  7. Failures are part of the process

  8. Listening with respect

  9. Develop a learning mindset

  10. Direction is key

  11. Speed is situational


1. Honesty is original


The first and foremost leadership skill is native to the term leadership, i.e., honesty. There is something special about honesty as it brings authenticity to leadership. Being honest about oneself, dealings, situations, people, strengths, weaknesses, and more, are all the foundational aspects of leadership. Why foundational? Because without this, the rest of the traits don't matter. To see things "as they are" requires courage and that will always come from being honest. Honesty cannot be faked or compromised.


2. Communication is a continuum


The second trait of leadership is continuous communication. The key here is to know the why, when, who, what, and how of communication. But the key trait is in the word continuum. It is not isolated or prepared but a continuous process that helps bridge the gaps in understanding and brings alignment between people. There have been failed leaders for lack or want of communication, not the other way around.


The key aspects of leadership communication are

- Always two way

- Its a healthy mix of written, verbal and grape-wine

- When in doubt always ask

- Clear message with no scope for interpretations

- Tough times do not require tough but frequent communication

- Open for questions all the time

- Saying and hearing "NO" should be part of the process

- Good messages should be welcome irrespective of where they originate


3. Transparency is formal


Transparency makes dealing with people easier. In the context of leadership, the trait of transparency needs to be formal. To explain there are always processes and situations to handle. Being driven by defined work metrics and sharing those metrics as a process with all stakeholders is the essence of the leadership trait of transparency. Be it any unit or any person, as long as their work is open for anyone to see there is transparency, however, it has to be communicated formally to all concerned. As simple as it may sound it is very difficult to open up your work to others especially when you feel that you may be revealing more than what you see! This is what defines true leadership.


4. People matter

The key qualitative aspect of leadership is the philosophy that "people matter".


No person can be a leader in isolation or exile. Leadership qualities primarily exist only for people, as they are displayed in relationship to them.


When people matter, leaders display empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. So empathy is a key trait of this qualitative aspect of leadership.


Calling someone a leader merely because they manage, handle or govern people is very different from empathy-driven leadership.


If democracy is of the people, by the people and for the people, leadership starts with recognising that there are people and they matter. They will only matter when empathy is at the core of this trait.


The quintessential debate of whether it is an "employee-first culture" or "customer-first culture " will also not arise once you empathise that there are people at both ends of the spectrum wearing different hats.


5. Nothing is personal


A key leadership trait is to deal with matters and situations professionally. This simply means developing an unemotional detachment from the work or matters on hand. It also means developing a unique sense of not taking pride or hurt basis outcomes. While it's easier said than done, controlling egos is at the core of this quality. If egos do not take precedence over the tasks on hand, personality clashes will be relegated to occasional blips. There are times when leadership acquires more power than what the situation or matter on hand demands. This results in the outcomes being taken personally driven rather than professionally. The thin line is the dual words of unemotional and detachment.


6. Vulnerability is accepted


So if we say one of the qualitative aspects of leadership is being unemotional then where does vulnerability fit in? Per textbooks and dictionaries, it simply means the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. This is an important leadership quality which cannot be emphasised more. In handling people not everything is rational and in handling processes not everything is simple and straight through. The trait of accepting one's vulnerability makes one prepare well for all situations yet accept the reality that this can happen to anyone. The defining quality in a leader and others is the ability to ask for help when needed - accepting their vulnerabilities - so that the teams or the processes don't end up as failures.


7. Failures are part of the process


Great leaders have failed in the past and will fail in the future too. So leadership is not fail-proof and by the same logic, success is not guaranteed. Failure is part of the process - built by design. At the core of failures is an important skill called tenacity. It is the quality or fact of being very determined; determination to exist and survive. While it is a good skill to plan for everything and anticipate the possibility of failures, it is a great leadership trait to embrace failures when they do happen and keep the lessons learnt in muscle memory to not repeat them.


8. Listening with respect


One of the key qualities of leadership is the ability of the leaders to go around the room asking for views. They need to practice this irrespective of the level of the person to who they are talking and geographies don't matter. The skill demands that leaders listen to people with rapt attention as though they are the most important persons in the conversation. The key quality here is giving respect.


Be it a one-on-one meeting, or a group meeting, leaders who are great listeners always give respect to the other person to understand their point. The inputs coming in may be important or irrelevant but the skill demands energy and hence needs great practice.


Giving respect comes in many forms and in this context it is:

- Listening with undivided attention.

- Showing openness to absorb inputs.

- Not fidgeting with any gadget while the other person was talking.

- Not attending to any emails while the conversation was on.

- Never dismiss a point of view outright.

- Showing voice tonality (one of courtesy).

- Displaying a positive body language


9. Develop a learning mindset


Good leadership quality is to be always open with one's receptors to learn something. We are in a world of continuous disruption and no amount of knowledge is worth a lifetime except for a few life-saving skills like swimming, CPR etc. There is something to be learnt every moment and every day and it is all around us. The key leadership skill for this century is to develop a learning mindset so that learning becomes a continuous process of a lifetime. As I have said earlier there is a subtle difference between the qualitative aspects of leadership and the qualities of a leader. However, in developing a learning mindset the lines blur. There is no leadership quality without developing a learning mindset and there would be no leader without having a learning mindset quality.


10. Direction is key


A key qualitative trait of leadership is to always carry a sense of direction. The velocity of how fast we are travelling may vary, and the journey may be bumpy but we cannot undertake any journey without a sense of where we are going. So the purpose is at the centre of this trait. "Find the purpose and the means will follow" goes a very famous quote.


Finding the purpose in this context would mean:

- Being clear about what the vision is before the journey starts

- For the purpose in front of us, the route can change not the direction

- Measurement of where one is along the route is a key enabler for getting a sense of direction

- Sharing the purpose with all concerned who are part of the journey makes the journey much more pleasurable.

- Sometimes we may be static and not moving anywhere and its moments like these that direction remains the key as a North star.


11. Speed is situational


Speed is important but depends on the race and so understanding this is a key trait. While many management lessons will tell you that speed is of the essence. However, speed is not constant and, the key (and defining) leadership quality is to know the race you are in and adjust the speed accordingly. Some tactical decisions and processes required immense speed while the more strategic ones need you to conserve energy and resources so that you can go far and achieve your vision.


To conclude:


So the qualitative aspects of leadership can be found in people to different degrees and are not the sole intellectual property (IP) of leaders alone. However, what makes a great leader is the balance of these qualities and using them wisely to steer his ship in calm and wild waters.


We will describe and talk more about the qualities of a leader in our future posts. If you want more clarity on how to develop these qualitative leadership skills for you or your teams reach out to us today at info@executepartners.com.


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