The most important qualities for successful leadership

The most important qualities for successful leadership

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Christo Nel, Program Director at Nyenrode Business Universiteit, discusses the key qualities of modern leadership.

Every day a new book or article appears exploring some facet of the endless topic of leadership.

This is largely due to the increasing conviction that leadership is the primary differentiator between moderate and superior performance.

Effective leadership can make the difference between short-term bursts of performance which fizzle out, and long-term performance that successfully serves the interests of all stakeholders.

Evolving theories on leadership

There are three major shifts related to leadership that have gained momentum over the past two decades:

1. Leadership is a primary driver of success

Leadership as a skill that can be developed and which plays the central role in medium- to long-term organizational and societal wellbeing has moved onto the main stage. It is no longer debated whether leadership is a primary driver of sustainable success. Research has now conclusively proven that it is.

2. Modern leadership is energizing and non-coercive

There is an increasing awareness that leadership should be defined as the capacity to energize others and get things done in non-coercive ways, serving the interests of everyone involved.

This concept is both provocative and radical, as it implies that true leadership is rooted in a definable set of values, attitudes and behaviours.

This raises the question of whether someone with a large following but misguided values and behaviours can be considered a leader.

An individual can certainly have a loyal following based on nepotism, coercion, corruption, favours, or ruling by threat or fear. However, research and growing consensus suggest that even if such people have many followers, it does not entitle them to be defined as a leader.

This is at least in part due to the increasing linkage between leadership and sustainability. In other words, this theory increasingly claims that leadership can only be successful if it contributes to the sustainability of self, others, organizations and societies.

Actions that only have short-term benefits for the few cannot therefore be viewed as leadership.

3. Everyone can exercise leadership

The third theory that has recently gained traction is that leadership is universal and not just for individuals "at the top".

There is a tectonic shift towards the belief that the vast majority of individuals at all levels of an organization can demontrate leadership in their field, not just those in higher positions of authority.

The act of leadership, and the opportunity for most people to be a leader within his/her own context, is now well documented in research and in-depth case studies.

Tapping into leadership potential

The single biggest challenge facing individual leaders, teams and entire organizations is how to create a culture within which these vast resources of leadership can be energized and unleashed.

Viewed in this way we can readily claim that leadership potential is perhaps the most underutilized and unrealized resource available to the vast majority of teams and organizations.

The most important leadership qualities

There is a growing amount of overlap and consensus between various commentators and researchers on the essential qualities of leadership. The following three key leadership qualities are drawn from general and personal perspectives:

 Personal authenticity

It is not possible to be a sustainable high-impact leader by trying to clone oneself onto others. We can, and must, learn from others.

It is your willingness and courage to define your personal edge and authentic leadership character that will ultimately determine your capacity to exercise a non-coercive and sustainable influence and create a meaningful impact.

It is important to create a stimulating environment where each individual can build the courage to define and claim their own authenticity and leadership character.

 Humility and fierce resolve

Jim Collins in "Good to Great" famously defines great leaders as people who are capable of embracing the paradox of humility to learn from others; and the uncompromising will to get things done, regardless of obstacles.

When separate these forces of great leadership become insipid. Humility without fierce resolve can be anaemic; and fierce resolve without humility can become brutal and coercive. Combined, they create an ideal balance.

 Power and politics

Leadership in its essence is about exercising power and politics. Unfortunately both of these often have negative connotations because they have been exercised in ways that dominate and undermine others.

Sustainable leadership is about exercising the influence to get things and done and galvanize the energy and potential of others. This cannot be achieved without coming to terms with the natural and essential forces of power and politics.

To be a leader, an individual must be willing to recognize and exercise his/her power; to reach conclusions and make decisions; and to drive execution. This cannot be done without power.

In the process the complexity and diversity of even the smallest team or organization means that there will be a multitude of dynamics and interplays between people.

So a leader needs to develop political intelligence and the competence to work with, rather than try to escape from, the politics. Power and politics are like a powerful wind blowing across the ocean. You cannot change the wind, but you can set your sails to capture its energy and travel at exhilarating speed.

Christo Nel is the Program Director of the International MBA and the Executive MBA at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands.

To find out how you can develop your leadership qualities via a Nyenrode MBA, register for:
 The Full-time International MBA Weekend: May 29 - 31, 2015.
 The Part-time Executive MBA Open Evening: June 4, 2015.

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Christo Nel


Christo Nel

Christo Nel is the Program Director of International MBA and Executive MBA at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands. Christo Nel is a previous head of the Centre for Leadership...

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