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The secret of leadership

18 August 2014  

Is leadership being single-minded – or is that just having a one-track mind? asks John Bowen


Look up the characteristics of leadership and you will see the usual suspects; charisma, decision-making, vision, caring for their followers, character, courage and so on, but there is another key ingredient that rarely gets a mention and that is the subject of this week’s musing. 


If you ask a group of people to name half-a-dozen great leaders from history you will always get a mention of one or two of history’s less salubrious characters and the most frequently listed of these is Adolf Hitler.


All dictators have some of the classic leadership qualities because they would not get to be a dictator without them; try being a dictator without a core of loyal followers and you will not get far, but such leaders do usually have their vision, they are decisive, they have charisma – and at least a pinch of courage in the mix.


One of the rarely mentioned ingredients of leadership – we don’t like to talk about it too much because it is not a pleasant thing – is that they are single-minded to the point of being ruthless in the pursuit of their goals; that they often lean towards being a bully. This is where dictators start to part company from the truly great leaders and the root issue is that secret ingredient.


The need for a leader to have vision is not in doubt, but what a really good leader has is the positive way they react to criticism for where the dictator will just eliminate those who question them the good leader will listen and consider what their critics have to say. It may change their thinking or it may not, but good leaders react well to criticism and that is what differentiates them.


We meet criticism from an early age – parents, teachers and peers all point out our faults, the latter often with some glee. It is hard when you have done your best and someone picks holes in it, but we have to learn and we do have a choice in how we react to what others say. The old saying ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me’ is a good one, even if there are times when it is hard to apply.


It gets easier if you develop character – another leadership quality, and can take what your critics say on the chin. Of course there will be times when what is said is unfair or unfounded, but you choose how you react and if that choice is to react positively, then you are making a big step forwards.


Those lists of great leaders that people come up with can be easily differentiated by looking at how the people on them reacted to critics, regardless of whether they chose the dark side or not they were all leaders. But those on the dark side, without exception, will be people whose answer to critics was to dispose of them. Good leaders will try to turn them into followers and if they can’t are happy to leave them to have their say for they know that you can’t please them all.


You need character and courage to face your critics and to accept them, not as a necessary evil, but as an important component of your world. Like leaders, there are good and bad critics and you need to meet them both equally. If your purpose is true and you communicate it well you will always have enough support to see things through.

John Bowen is an FM consultant