Constants in Leadership

First published in HR Director 23 January 2015


Whilst rapid developments in technology create new opportunities to increase the speed of response and offer a level of connectedness unimaginable just a few years ago, some things in business remain constant. Success depends on understanding and serving the needs of our customers. However, expectations of what employees expect from work is shifting. For the first time in history we have a generation who have grown up with technology as an integral part of their lives. They think, work and interact differently. As technology changes, these changes are likely to continue. Fortunately, when you drill them down to the core skill set a leader needs, they remain a constant. The right skills appropriately deployed stand the test of time.

Leadership, by definition is about followership. Becoming a leader is because someone has decided to follow you. How we treat those we expect to follow us will determine in large part what we can achieve. This is because business, fundamentally, is about people. Everything else is secondary. The challenge is helping leaders get the most from those whom they lead.

Our suggestion is there are five leadership skills critical to ensure the continued success of a business and these should form the basis of any leadership development programme.

It begins with self awareness

The email sent out to the whole department about turning up on time for work in the hope that the one or two miscreants who don’t is a classic example of crass management that typifies someone who needs to become more self aware. All of us have at one time or another in our careers been a victim of a colleague who had no idea of the negative impact they were having. Most of us also have stories of people with whom we have worked whose input has been inspirational, whom we still talk about to this day. In short, your behaviour is either a warning or an example. Your ability to influence another is assisted by knowing what in your behaviour helps or hinders what you want to achieve. A leader needs to be aware of the impact their behaviour has. Why? The single most significant driver of employee engagement (and in turn business performance) is the behaviour of the line manager.

Of all the things a leadership programme should do, raising self awareness is probably the most important part. Everything else builds on this understanding.

Skill 1: Self awareness

Profitably engaged

The evidence is overwhelming – engaged employees are productive employees. People are more engaged at work when they are doing the things they are good at doing. Such people are more productive and open to new ideas. They are more likely to show up for work on time, have fewer accidents at work and be more resilient. They are also likely to be great advocates of the business. So if you want your business to perform better – engage your people more. It’s not just a nice thing to do, it drives profitability.

Two of the things leaders can do to engage people more effectively are:

  1. Coach them: Help them become better at what they do. This benefits you and them. Whilst there are many formal training programmes on coaching, knowing the basics will get you a long way.
  1. Be a great facilitator: This is about leveraging the intellectual horsepower of the teams of people with whom you work. Being a facilitator is about guiding people through a discussion without pre-determining what the right solution should be to achieve the outcome sought. Sometimes you will be the leader and other times the follower, whatever the circumstance, helping shape a conversation is a skill that can save considerable time, liberate much better ideas and ensure the conclusion is concrete, usable and of value.


However good the coaching and facilitating may be, if the discussion is predicated on the same set of assumptions that created an issue in the first instance, then the required breakthrough thinking is likely to remain elusive. Good leaders are able to think innovatively and challenge assumptions and mindsets currently held.

Skill 2: Coaching

Skill 3: Facilitating

Riveting thinking

History has shown that almost all those who attempt to predict the future generally get it wrong. Whilst the future is largely unknowable, we have to make decisions about what we think will happen. Coping with this ambiguity is one of the key distinctions that separates the role of leader from others in business.

Have you ever wondered how the small metal rivets found their way onto jeans? The story begins with a customer of Jacob Davis, a Latvian tailor living in the United States. The customer was increasingly frustrated with the way his pockets kept ripping off with the weight of his tools. Jacob Davis’s solution was to rivet the pockets onto the jeans. The idea proved effective and popular. However Davis did not have the money for the patent so he asked a supplier of cloth, Levi Strauss, a German immigrant, to share the cost. This Levi Strauss did in return for registering the patent in both their names. And so was born the metal studs in jeans that exist to this day. Jacob Davis is a great example of someone thinking differently. We can learn to be more effective at thinking differently. And, it’s also about failure.

Failing your way to success

The Harvard Business Review dedicated a whole issue to the power of failure! We are hypocrites about failure. Go online and you’ll find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure and the importance of learning from it. But in real life – and in real companies – failure is an anathema. We’re afraid of it. We avoid it. We penalize it. The slogan ‘fail often in order to succeed sooner’ would hardly promote success in a manufacturing plant. To succeed in the world of balanced score-cards and other performance management tools requires a conservative approach where objectives are met and errors and mistakes are avoided.

 We fail to learn from history. A brief delve into some of the most successful inventions man has created finds not simply the disciplined execution of strategy, but an ability to make mistakes and learn from these – think of Penicillin. Failure is inevitable and often out of our control. But we can choose to understand it, to learn from it, and to recover from it.

Learning from failure is hard work – it requires us to challenge our own sense of self worth both emotionally and cognitively. Who amongst us likes to work out why they are a failure! And yet, learning from failure requires this type of reflective analysis – kicking your chair back, putting your feet on the table and thinking. This is not so much ‘time out’ but instead is the foundation for success. It needs self awareness.

We need to be able to challenge the way people think and encourage people to experiment with new ideas and learn lessons swiftly and effectively.

Skill 4: Innovative thinking


At its simplest, to quote Emmerling, “Innovation is creativity with a job to do.” Whether it’s helping people think differently, coaching them, facilitating a discussion or contemplating how to have a better impact – the outcome is the same. How to improve the performance of self and others. It’s easy to get lost in the quagmire of performance management systems and the like. Whilst they have a place, performance begins with great goals. Understanding what constitutes a great goal and helping people translate that into action and then supporting them with appropriate inputs is where the leadership rubber hits the road. Unless our efforts result in a change in business performance it has been a waste of time. Helping people improve their performance requires a combination of the other 4 skills and a disciplined process of execution.


Skill 5: Performance management


© Dominic Irvine & Johanna Clarie 2015 All rights asserted