The qualities of good leadership

Mark Haywood, CMS's head of the North

By Mark Haywood, CMS partner and head of regions.

The nominations for the Northern Leadership Awards are all in, the initial judging has taken place and the shortlisted finalists have been announced, ahead of a gala dinner scheduled for Manchester at the end of September. My fellow CMS partners Tanya Holt and Howard Gill were part of the judging panel, and they tell me that the quality of the close to 140 entrants was exceptionally high and testament to an excellent pool of leadership talent here in the North of England.

Reviewing the list of finalists got me thinking about the qualities needed to be a good leader. We’ve all read the usual leadership manuals, and I’m sure most of us are aware of the skills and techniques adopted by many of history’s greatest leaders – the likes of Julius Caesar, Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Winston Churchill and several – but certainly not all – recent US presidents.

I wondered, in particular however, if the leadership qualities they displayed would be as effective today as they were then. I suspect not. Times and conditions are very different and it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the key attributes for quality leadership change and evolve over time also.

Consider, for example, three qualities I think demonstrate good leadership today. I’m not sure these attributes would have been adopted by some of the names cited above.

Firstly, a good leader today consults widely across many constituencies, but after doing so takes quick and decisive action. It is important to engage as many people as possible – often from diverse backgrounds and with differing agendas – and to solicit expert opinion, but at the end of the day a leader must make a decision that is explicit and unequivocal. A decision must be clear and concise, not vague and with miles of wiggle room. Those being led – be it in a company, an organisation, or even a country – need to understand clearly what the executive decision is. I’m sure we can all think of examples where executive decisions have been taken, and no one really is any the wiser about what is and isn’t permitted.

Secondly, a good leader takes unequivocal ownership of their decisions. No decision is made in a vacuum, and good leadership means understanding that any decision will see winners and losers, advantages and disadvantages. Every decision comes with risk. A good leader must own that trade-off, clearly communicate the upside of their decision while also being honest and open about the costs and challenges. A leader who extolls only the benefits of his or her decision is just a cheerleader, not an effective leader.

And finally, a good leader knows that not all decisions turn out to be the right one. When that happens, persisting with the wrong strategy is not strong leadership; it’s exactly the opposite. Strong leadership is acknowledging that circumstances change, new conditions prevail, hitherto unthought of factors come into play, and that sometimes we must accept that we need to change course.

It was Edward de Bono who said that “If you never change your mind, why have one?” The ability to accept new information and change your mind is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of exceptional leadership.

Although I’m not sure Julius Caesar would have agreed.