Ros Taylor reveals the common traits of successful leaders.
People often say they’re simply not natural-born leaders. They look at the CEOs and presidents of this world, and think that’s just not me. But the truth is, although not everyone is cut out to be a leader, there is nothing mysterious about the qualities good leaders possess. With a lot of hard work, some good luck, and some learnable essential skills, anyone can be a leader.
What makes leaders tick?
To answer this question, 80 business leaders were interviewed and their skills, their attitudes, backgrounds and working habits were analysed. Their offices were scrutinised – the size, the decor, the art on their walls – and their secretaries were found to be a fund of interesting information as they escorted the researchers along corridors and into lifts.
The body language and often the replies spoke volumes as to whether the captain of industry they had just seen was a sweetheart to work for or a monster. There were 59 men and 21 women in the sample – a 73% to 27% split. The average age of the group was 52, although the women were slightly younger, with an average age of 46 years.
Self-confidence is a necessity, but that doesn’t mean all leaders need to be naturally confident.
Of our sample, 66 were based in the UK and 14 were American. The group included Dawn Airey, then at Channel 4, Nicholas Coleridge from Condé Nast, Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse, Sir Rocco Forte of RF Hotels and Lord Gordon of Strathblane of Scottish Radio Holdings.
The skills that matter
Interpersonal skills are all-important. The directors were nearly always charming, persuasive and eloquent. Where they had faced challenges, or found they had to acquire new skills, these were mostly behavioural rather than ‘technical’ subjects like computing and finance.
The majority of the group had degrees – 73 out of 80 (91% of the sample). The type of degree seemed to be of little relevance to final choice of career in many cases.
One CEO, for example, was trained as a rocket scientist. When asked if his original expertise was utilised at all in his current position as CEO, he strongly felt that his early training had developed a powerful analytical ability that had stood him in good stead.
Strength and resilience
Energy is essential. It was common to find people working 80-100 hours a week, with punishing schedules and little time for relaxation. They had a great drive for success, and a commitment to their businesses and their employees. To keep up the pace, they needed to be aware of their health and to stay fit.
Directors are resilient. They cope with stress well, often saying that their work is not actually stressful. They often use distancing strategies by calling work a game, by retreating to other interests when necessary, or by using their domestic life as a cut off from business pressures.
They are also a very healthy group, with only 10% having had any significant illness. John Spence is one of this 10% and is a remarkable man who gradually became blind, but did not allow this disability to deter him from becoming chief executive of TSB Scotland.
Fun and interesting people
Despite their punishing work schedule, our group had a wide range of interests that they actively pursued. From sailing to rollerblading, successful people live life to the full. It is clear that part of what they bring to their businesses is a breadth of vision that comes from having had a wide range of experiences.
Successful people love work. A real secret of success is undoubtedly loving the job. Our group made no sharp distinction between their working lives and their social lives and did not begrudge the intrusion of work into personal time.
SUBSCRIBE FOR THE FULL FEATURE
In fact, when Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse was asked how he coped with the pressures of work, he could not relate to the question. His answer was: “I just love what I do. There is simply no pressure involved in that.”
Natural versus learned skills
Self-confidence is a necessity, but that doesn’t mean all leaders need to be naturally confident. Some of the people we spoke to were born with an air of confidence about them, others were not and it developed with the job. All of our respondents rated their self-confidence as ‘high’.
This is unsurprising given the demands of leadership – they’re often required to defend themselves, to disagree with colleagues and to stand up and speak in front of employees, stakeholders, investors, customers and many more on a regular basis. Patience and tolerance had to be learned.
When asked what major skills had to be learned to execute their senior posts, overwhelmingly the two most common answers were patience and tolerance. It seems that these characteristics are not the natural behaviour of those who succeed, but simply must be learned to make progress in the corporate environment.
From the interviews, ten qualities all good leaders must have were noted.
About the author
Ros Taylor is a creative academic – a chartered clinical psychologist, coach, trainer and visiting professor at Strathclyde University where her specialism is leadership. This article is based on her book, Fast Track to the Top (Kogan Page, 2001). For more information, visit rostaylorcompany.com