The Uncomfortable Truth: No Such Thing as a Great Leader

Written by Professional Academy guest blogger Nicki Hayes

Each and every year leadership experts roll out their latest theories about what makes leaders great and with so many leadership contests in the news this summer, there are more theories than ever being banded about. Taking a snapshot of who is saying what, it seems that most commentators are missing the point. Not all great leaders share the same traits or strengths. Very few, if any, great leaders are well rounded. In fact, great leadership is not about individual leaders at all. It is about strong leadership teams building sustainable strength-based cultures. And that, folks, is an eternal truth…

Simply Googling “What makes great leaders?” reveals 8 articles written on the subject this year so far within just the first two pages. Some refer to traits, some to qualities, a few to performance, still fewer to ‘teams’.

Writing for the World Economic Forum, Daniel Dobrygoowski claims that self-reflection is the only trait shared by great leaders. According to Peter Economy, The Leadership Guy at in his articles The 5 Essential Qualities of a Great Leader, the best leaders exhibit clarity, decisiveness, courage, passion and humility. Meanwhile, Jim Rohn, writing in Success claims 7 traits of great leaders. Great leaders are: strong yet not impolite; bold yet not bullying; humble yet not timid; proud yet not arrogant; humorous yet not foolish and, of course, realistic. Jami Oetting at Hubspot makes a claim for 10 shared leadership traits: communication; integrity; values; vision; confidence; curiosity; positive attitude; competence and empowerment.

As an accredited Strengscope360™ and StrengthscopeTeam™ facilitator, many of these traits and characteristics sound familiar. However, the training relating to these accreditations, the research upon which they are based and personal and collective experience inform me: there is no such thing as a list of leadership traits, or of a peak performing, well-rounded leader.

Good leadership is about knowing and optimizing your own and your team’s natural strengths by practicing these four Stretch Leadership Habits.

  1. Sharing vision (setting stretch goals and optimising your own strengths)
  2. Sparking engagement (optimising the strengths of others)
  3. Skillfully executing (building and reinforcing a strengths-based culture)
  4. Sustaining progress (recognising and celebrating success)

That, basically, is all folks!

With the vast majority of commentary about leadership contests in the world of politics, sports and business focusing on individual leaders, is it not time to widen the discussion to reflect current research? Is it not time for the media to encourage society to stop focusing on a ‘leader’ and start focusing on leadership teams?

The Icelandic football team demonstrated the power of such leadership at the Euros this year. It is no coincidence that a country with a population smaller than Leicester so patiently overachieved. A strong football coaching culture and leadership team, headed by two coaches with complimentary strengths, and supported by a national Football Association that focused on strengths (coaches and players in positions that maximized their natural strengths), strategy (investing in coaching, facilities and developing the game rather than individual egos) and success (just watch their qualifying and final homecomings) certainly helped.  

You can see how such a strengths based coaching culture innately practiced each the four Stretch Leadership Habits in Barney Ronay‘s superb Guardian article, Football, Fire and ice: the inside story of Iceland’s remarkable rise. That’s what’s so good about these distilled leadership habits: you can reflect on any great team performance, whether the team has purposefully embedded these habits or not, and find evidence that they have, which kind of makes them eternal truths, I guess.

You can see such a strengths-based approach purposefully embedded in the journey of Joe, a business leader in crisis, whose story is shared in the highly readable leadership fable Optimize Your Strengths. Written by the creators of the various Strengthcope™ psychometric tools and coaching approached referred to above, it’s an easy way to get your head around this simple and proven leadership framework. Well worth an hour of your time if any of what I have said above resonates.

Nicki will be recommending a psychology of leadership holiday reading list in her next blog, so watch this space …

Nicki is an accredited Strengthscope360™ and StrengthscopeTeam™ facilitator who chooses to use her own significant strengths (creativity, compassion, collaboration, optimism, empathy, enthusiasm and flexibility) to write, and help others write, compelling copy that inspires positive action.

Professional Academy offer a range of Management & Leadership Training as both bespoke in-company training with the option of accredited CMI qualification pathways and management & leadership qualifications for individuals looking to progress in their management career. Why not contact us today to see if we can help you with your personal development as a manager and a leader?