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What are good leaders really good at?

This is like asking: “What makes a good wine?” Wine lovers and connoisseurs will tell you that while the label is often a good indication; the test is really in the total experience, over time.

While your senses will reveal the dominant and more subtle colours and flavours of a good wine, and how they combine to create a lasting sensation, the total experience is all the more rewarding in the presence of good food, pleasant company and the ambience of the setting. A really great wine will deliver consistently, even as your mood, the menu and the settings change.

Similarly, we believe that leadership cannot be defined, one-dimensionally, by a single capability or attribute. Effective leadership requires a combination of many factors, including the occasional spot of good luck. Leadership is revealed in actions, not in the packaging or certificates on the wall.

It isn’t only about ability

There is art in leadership – meaning that each person brings a unique, special creativity to situations requiring leadership. Your authentic, innovative self is what the people around you are looking for, not a reincarnation of other leaders, no matter how notable they are or may have been.

But there are certain fundamentals

Without simplifying the matter, there are four fundamentals you always need to be thinking about as a leader:

  • What needs to be done?
  • Who needs to be doing it?
  • How can they be mobilised?
  • What support will help them succeed?

The great majority, if not everything you read and hear about leadership, will fall under these four fundamentals.

The difference between being good and being great

If you are able to consistently execute these fundamentals over time, you can consider yourself a good leader. Great leaders, in turn, are those who deliver consistently well over time with the added and varying complexities of different tasks, numbers of people, volatile contexts, resource constraints and time pressures.

The deeper distinction between individuals who are good at leading and those who are not comes from understanding the extent to which each of the fundamentals can differ in degree and substance. Understanding the obvious tasks to be done and the direction to be taken is an entry-level leadership requirement. Being able to recognise tasks that are not obvious, or conceptualising a direction that no one else has contemplated, is the hallmark of individuals with greater leadership potential. But great leadership requires that all the fundamentals must be in place – from formulating what must be done, through to delivery.

Results matter

Leadership roles call for results – there is no other compelling reason why you have a leadership responsibility. There are no accolades for effort in leadership. Non-satisfactory results point to leadership failure. If the team doesn’t win, the coach will eventually be replaced. If the party doesn’t perform well at the polls, a new candidate will be chosen to fight the next election.

Context is important

We know intuitively that leading a team of volunteers in a not-for-profit enterprise is an entirely different challenge to managing a team of insurance sales consultants. Supervising a group of construction workers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds is different to chairing a financial institution. Change the number of people, add new tasks, introduce a political sensitivity or tighten the budget, and the complexities grow exponentially. Being able to deliver consistently, even as the context changes, is the hallmark of leadership greatness.

Perhaps the wisest conclusion we should be making is that great leaders understand how context and situation inform and determine their response, and that they can adapt accordingly. They know their own limitations and strengths, and they are committed to a journey of learning to better equip them for the next challenge. Mostly, they know that understanding the task and direction, appreciating who should be doing the work and how they can be mobilised and supported, are critical to the end results achieved.

Leaders who have made it in Africa have done so precisely because they have mastered these four fundamentals. They have not allowed their energies and focus to be sidetracked by the rhetoric of servant-leadership, people-centered leadership or leading with meaning and soul. These are interesting and useful approaches to leadership, but they are not definitively what good leadership is all about.

Our point is that great leadership is about consistently getting the basics right, and, most importantly, that the capacity to execute the four fundamentals, and to do so well, can be learnt.

Ian Dean ([email protected]) is an independent consultant and a scholar of leadership. He works internationally to help organisations improve the performance of their leaders and businesses. Hennie du Plessis ([email protected]) works as a strategy and performance consultant and uses his corporate experience to help drive positive change in organisations. This the third in a series of six articles How we made it in Africa will publish over the next two months in which they share their insights on leadership.

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