On many management or leadership courses I run with all sorts of client groups our discussions usually end up revolving around the subject of what makes a great leader?
Inevitably we discuss the character traits of famous or infamous leaders and try to identify what made them great, this way we compare or try to learn from them.
This is a great way of recognizing successful, and not so successful characteristics that we can either take on and use for ourselves, or to avoid at all costs!
Subjects in this ID parade of past leaders usually seem include Jesus, Emily Pankhurst, Mandela, Churchill, Margret Thatcher, Hitler, Sir Francis Drake, and Richard Branson to name but a few. So why is it that we turn to these leaders to seek advice and guidance on how WE can become better leaders ourselves?
I admit that there are common traits or situations both individually or collectively that these people possess, or have been through that we can use to help us learn to do things differently or better.
But do we believe that leaders are great because of birth, psychological predetermination, or accident of their position or situation?
Is there a great leader inside all of us just waiting to get out?
All of the leaders we usually discuss in these workshops have done amazing things and most will go down in history for their achievements and success, but in the end they were only human…. Just like you and me!
And just like you and me they had their flaws.
I think that alongside looking at the positive or perceived positives about their characters or their actions, we should also look at these flaws in the same way, finding out what they may have struggled with in their personalities , actions or performances to give us a clearer picture of what leaders do.
Lets take Sir Frances Drake for instance, he was a man with a vision, he wanted to protect his country, push his boundaries and explore the world.
He carried out extreme acts of piracy, killing hundreds of innocent people, many who had placed their trust in him, and along the way profiting hugely from his state sponsored acts, that we would now probably call terrorism.
But he was undoubtedly a great leader, men followed him time and again off to blank areas on the world map, he led them on huge exploits, through great battles and on one of the earliest circumnavigations of the world.
It is said that he could inspire men in their worst moments and bring them through some of the hardest parts of their expeditions.
Imagine being in a storm, miles from land, in huge rolling seas, floating in a small 16th century wooden boat being tossed in massive waves… Scary?
Well it was in times like this that Drake was known to be on deck, with his men, stripped to the waist, hauling ropes and shouting encouragement and defying them to work as hard as him. On other times he would lead religious services on board, promoting his protestant beliefs alongside defining the purpose of their task, therefore building morale, and helping to define his leadership and vision.
What a mix?
He was obviously a deeply flawed, selfish man, motivated by greed and his need for power, but at the same time endowed with courage, vision, ability to inspire, to relate to his followers and to come to the front in times of real need and lead from the front!
We are all like this, we all have flaws and attributes that like Drake can be used to define how we operate as leaders in many situations.
If we could identify and recognize our flaws as much as our more positive abilities and if we can understand these we could learn to work more holistically as leaders, and improve the way that we understand our teams.
Sometimes we are scared to identify our flaws, thinking that these are areas of weakness, but by doing so we create a full understanding of ourselves but also how we operate in team working situations. By understanding the flaws of our co-workers or staff we have a greater chance of achieving the aims of the team or task, because we will know how to work with people, as well as our own methods and therefore delegate or take on tasks that are most appropriate to abilities.
A good leader who understands themselves and their teams fully becomes a great leader who knows when to push, when to inspire, when to step back or when, like Drake to get their shirt off and get stuck in!!