Traits of successful leaders in difficult times

I’ve given a lot of thought to leadership over the last number of months, from two quite different perspectives. The first being the broad charity sector perspective, and what has been described by some as a ‘crisis of leadership’; and the second from the perspective of my role as the leader of a small business, trying to navigate that business through the uncharted and choppy waters created by the pandemic.

So much has been written about leadership over the years and the extent to which our personalities drive our aptitude for leadership, or whether there are skills and traits that define leaders which can be learnt. In 2020, the behaviour of our global national leaders was brought into sharp focus, and much has been written about the subject; and I am sure that there’s few of us on the planet who haven’t had a conversation with friends, family or co-workers about the leadership style, and successes and failures, of at least some of these leaders.

At the end of the day, leaders are just people - human beings who, often by design but sometimes by chance, find themselves required to steer teams, nations and movements to grow, develop, think and achieve the unthinkable. Leaders are not super humans, nor are they infallible or invincible. Leaders do indeed enable the achievement of magnificent endeavours, but they also make mistakes - often very publicly - and can teeter precariously on the thin line between hero and zero, without always being conscious of having stepped onto that particular tightrope.

I’ve observed both good and not so good leadership practice over the years. And I’ve tried hard to take what I see and either mix it into my leadership style or guard against behaving in that way. When I look at leaders like those who emerged in THINK’s Leadership Survey last year as most admired - Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, and Steve Jobs to name but a few - I can identify some common traits that make these people great leaders: vision, tenacity, determination, focus, and the ability to inspire. But what about the less obvious traits? It’s these that I believe have been more important over the last year or so, and they include:

The ability to flex style quickly in response to new and challenging situations.
Mostly, leaders inspire action by setting a loose framework within which the talent and ingenuity of their teams is empowered to thrive. But sometimes a team needs their leader to set very tight tramlines for behaviour and to clearly lay out what is expected of them. This is usually in moments of crisis, when the unknown is all around, and the leader needs to set a clear and determined path for action. I’m privileged to lead a very talented, experienced and free-spirited team of people at THINK and my leadership style as managing director is reflective of that. But at moments of absolute unknown, such as the onset of the pandemic or the untimely death of the late Tony Elischer, the team has responded to me taking a very direct approach of telling rather than inspiring; and has acknowledged the appropriateness of that.

Deploying a combination of what Mckinsey have described as 'deliberate calm' and 'bounded optimism'.
By this I mean allowing pause for thought even in the most urgent of situations and remaining optimistic but realistic about the consequence of a given situation. This is a tricky combination to deliver – but one that I’ve found critical to deploy in the face of extreme uncertainty, as well as appropriate for many other moments beyond that.

Recognizing, acknowledging and learning from moments of flounder and failure.
It’s actually ok for leaders to make mistakes and change direction – it really is! Not repeatedly of course, and not by pretending it didn’t happen, but by handling those moments of crisis, acknowledging taking a wrong turn and then taking appropriate, corrective action. When a given situation is completely unique and action is time-critical, inevitably leaders can make wrong moves. Facing up to that and being honest when a change is made is defining for a leader.

Knowing when it’s ok to be publicly 'not ok'.
Teams need their leaders to be constantly and demonstrably moving forward, being unafraid and positive, to be performing. They don’t want their leaders to be beset with doubt, to be seen to be wobbling, to be losing their grip; that stuff can happen only within in the leader’s closest and most personal circle of confidantes – their partner, most trusted friend or family member, or pet! However, sometimes it is actually ok for a leader to show some vulnerability and fragility to their team. In my experience, this behaviour serves to strengthen the connection between leader and team, when exhibited at the right moment. What is critical of course is judging when the moment is right; and perhaps a good analogy is this - the moment is not good when the house is on fire, but when the fire is out and you are working through the implications of the loss of the house, it’s ok then to share your concern or anxiety.

I hope I’ve managed to shine a light on some different aspects of leadership from my experience. And as for the ‘leaders are born not made’ debate, I actually think it’s both. You can learn to be a great leader, but you have to be born with the desire to become one, and no-one can ever teach you that.

Michelle Chambers is Director of THINK Canada. 
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