What is the one quality without which you cannot lead?

There are many qualities, competences, attitudes and work routines that contribute to effective leadership. Stephen Covey lists the seven habits of highly effective people in his book by the same title. Over 6m copies have been sold. He later added an eighth habit, “find your voice and inspire others to find theirs”, to complete his definitive list of what separates greatness from effectiveness. In a pioneering piece of research, published under the title From Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to “level 5 leaders” who have fierce determination, blended with great humility.

Beyond the extensive research that confirms the importance of trust, clear vision, diagnostic and analytical skills, problem-solving abilities and an achievement drive, multiple leadership models present strong arguments for particular styles and approaches. The works of John Kotter, Warren Bennis, Manfred Kets de Vries and ubuntu (the Africanist philosophy of collectivism) from Reuel Khosa come readily to mind. The outstanding prose of David Whyte in his Crossing the Unknown Sea provides compelling insights about the personal human journey of leaders.

But, as we pointed out in our earlier article, it is tough for the aspiring leader faced with so much information to find a universal, simple reference to work with.

When you study the character of individuals regarded as effective leaders, you will struggle to find evidence of them possessing all the qualities regarded as highly desirable, or even mandatory. In fact, it is possible to eliminate just about every one of the qualities listed and still find individuals who have great leadership impact. Think about it.

In our work with thousands of leaders across Africa and the globe, we have concluded that there is indeed one thing without which you cannot lead: the most essential ingredient in leadership. And that is power. The word often carries an unpleasant connotation because of the many examples of leaders having abused power. It is our contention that the concept of power is widely misunderstood in the context of leadership.

Types of power

In the first instance, power describes the rights and authorities embedded in a formal position – it empowers the leader to issue instructions and expect compliance. Positional power is part and parcel of organisations everywhere. It provides structure and coherence and creates a hierarchy that serves to clarify and integrate the chain of command. When correctly applied it allows organisations to function effectively.

Of course, there is the possibility of abuse. Cult leaders, empowered by their delusions of divinity, succeed in ordering mass suicide among their followers. Self-obsessed dictators destroy countries and exterminate their enemies.

The second source of authority is derived from personal power. This is the capacity to influence others without the formal rights and authorities of a position.

Herein lies the crux – personal power is built on your credibility. Your credibility in turn depends on the currency of your competences, your reliability to deliver on your undertakings, your integrity, your track record of achievements and the extent to which you engender belief in both the proposed actions and the future.

Where do you think personal power comes from? Stated differently, who gives you personal power? It’s a common error to see yourself as the source. You can be rightfully proud of your credentials and achievements and conclude that you are indeed very credible. Unfortunately, this would be a flawed conclusion. Personal power is based on the perceptions that others have of you, and the extent to which they and they alone believe in your credibility. If you grasp this, you will recognise the fundamental importance of the trust relationship between leader and follower.

You can have all the money in the world. You can be well educated and very intelligent. You can be charismatic and well networked. You can be a lot of things to a lot of people. But unless they regard you as credible and are willing to accept your leadership, those qualities make little to no difference.

Positional power, no doubt, is a source of influence and a cornerstone of effective organisation. But many leaders fail because they do not effectively use the authority vested in their positions. Positional power has limitations – beyond the boundaries of a formal position it has no authority. The factory supervisor cannot order a debtors clerk to work overtime. A director in institution A has no authority over a junior employee in organisation B.

Personal power, on the other hand, transcends organisational boundaries. It can be used in any context and in any direction where you have earned credibility. The establishment of that credibility remains one of the greatest (if not the greatest) challenges for leaders who want to make it in Africa.

You can lead effectively without positional power. You can also lead without personal power if you have positional power. But the one thing without which you cannot lead is power itself.

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 second 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.