A series of blogs written by 2016 Emerge Communication Champions.
What are the key characteristics of effective leaders? This was a question that several speakers engaged with at Emerge 2016.
Keynote Paul Lindley referred to Simon Sinek’s work to emphasise the importance of starting with ‘Why?’ in any attempt to lead with impact. Knowing your purpose and communicating it clearly helps build trust and authenticity and will inspire others to follow you.
As Rabbi Dr Naftali Brewer stressed, telling a story capable of drawing people in is absolutely vital. Obama and Trump, despite their stark political differences, both ran successful Presidential campaigns because they were able to tell vivid stories that engaged their audiences. The historical accuracy of stories is far less significant than their power to inspire emotional connection. When telling your story, make sure it is simple enough to communicate to a child or a crowd of friends down the pub. And ensure that everyone in your team or organisation can identify themselves in the story.
Successful leaders need to surround themselves with great people covering a range of skillsets.
Once you have your story, what next? Initial group discussions in a workshop facilitated by social innovation enterprise euforia threw up some basic principles. Successful leaders need to surround themselves with great people covering a range of skill sets. They need to set direction, mapping out the path to achieving the organisation’s purpose and making tough decisions when necessary. Because obstacles will inevitably materialise, good leaders need to have the resilience to confront and overcome challenges.
Yet trying to produce a catch-all list of ingredients for successful leadership can mask the extent to which different organisations and different circumstances call for different types of leadership. As one participant pointed out using the example of Elon Musk, the oratory abilities that are often critical to the success of political leaders may not always be so essential for business leaders.
Building on this, delegates highlighted that it may be important for great leaders to adapt their leadership style to changing conditions, both internal and external to their organisations.
For me, the best part of the workshop was the screening of a short TED talk by entrepreneur Derek Sivers on How to Start a Movement. Sivers shows a video of ‘a lone nut’ dancing fanatically in front of an unimpressed crowd. A ‘first follower’ has the guts to start dancing with him and the leader embraces the follower as his equal. A few others join in, and then a few more, and before you know it the tipping point is reached and a movement is born. Before long, everyone is joining the crowd because they would be ridiculed for not doing so. The crucial lesson is that while the leader is of course important, the first follower is the unsung hero. It is the first follower who transforms the ‘lone nut’ into a leader and makes it less risky for other followers to come on board.
less than half the audience members believed that the leader was the most important person in a team.
A shift away from excessive focus on the leader was reflected in a conversation on The Art and Science of Building Great Teams. There, less than half the audience members believed that the leader was the most important person in a team. Exploring less hierarchical, more inclusive ways of working was a key theme of the discussion. As euforia, who work in a radically consensual way, pithily put it during their workshop, “Collaboration is the new Competition”.
So maybe the question we started with – ‘What are the key characteristics of effective leaders?’ – is a misguided one on two counts: it assumes a greater homogeneity among effective leaders than actually exists and suggests that we should all be aspiring to be leaders.
Perhaps there are more fundamental questions to focus on answering, with the help of considered introspection as well as the inspiration and connections gained through Emerge: ‘What is the change I want to see in the world?’ and ‘What is the best way for me to help make that change happen?’ – whether that involves being a leader or not.
Julia grew up in London and studied History at the University of Oxford. She currently works in renewable energy policy.
Feature image by www.fisherstudios.co.uk