IOP Institute of Physics

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Leadership

What makes a good leader?

The ability to inspire comes high on the list, as does setting an example, staying cool in a crisis situation and pushing others to achieve everything they’re capable of.

This may sound like daunting stuff, especially as we often think of leaders as so-called “type-A” personalities: competitive, self-confident risk-takers. But successful leaders don’t need to be like that at all. A dose of humility is vital to good leadership, while recognising your own limitations and admitting that you’re human can also contribute a lot. What’s more, the ability to listen effectively can be as important as the capacity to rouse others to action.

If you’re aiming for the top in your career, you’ll almost certainly be expected to demonstrate leadership skills like these. This quick guide is by no means exhaustive, but it should set you on the right track.

Be straight
Confusion can be uniquely demotivating, and a good leader makes it clear what team members are expected to do and – equally importantly – how they fit into the bigger picture. A degree of honesty is also really important. Of course, discretion has its place, and it’s impossible to be 100% honest all of the time. But people always appreciate straight talking, especially when it comes to bad news.

Offer rewards
Don’t expect your team to “go the extra mile” for nothing. Even in tough economic times, loyalty is a two-way street. So be aware that people working under you will not solely be interested in your company’s (or your!) advancement. Instead of expecting self-sacrifice, find out what they want in their careers and think how you can develop them and help them meet these goals.

Show concern
Make sure you’re open to your team’s concerns and you have time to listen. Listening is a huge skill in itself. (One simple technique is to give someone space to state their views without interrupting, then summarise back what they’ve said and check that your summary is accurate). As a leader, you might find yourself under extreme stress, but don’t forget to be human. You’ll need to be prepared to deal sensitively with personal issues such as childcare, bereavement or divorce. Fail to do so and you risk alienating members of your team permanently.

Say thank you
You may have limited influence over what people in your team are paid, but you can change other motivating factors. Thanking people costs nothing, and shows that you appreciate their efforts. Major achievements should call for a celebratory lunch or drink. After big events like conferences it’s a good idea to send round a general appreciative email to your team, and you can do the same at Christmas or the end of the financial year.

Don’t expect to be mates with your team
It’s lonely at the top, they say, and one of the undoubted downsides of promotion is that you have to give up the camaraderie of the shop floor. Of course you can be friendly, but gossiping after one drink too many will chip away from the authority you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Showing potential
What if you’re not yet a leader of a team, and want to show you have what it takes?

First of all, widen your horizons. Good leaders need to be able to grasp the big picture, so get engaged with everything that’s going on in your organisation. Resist the temptation to specialise. Rather than concentrating on your own department, build links with people working elsewhere.

Secondly, try to network with people higher up the corporate hierarchy than you currently are. Show you’re interested in the organisation’s future and have ideas on how to improve things. And when you make a mistake, as you inevitably will, think about what you can learn from it. The ability to grow and adapt is vital to successful leadership.

Further Reading

Daniel Coleman, The New Leaders, Little Brown

Paul Hershey, The Situational Leader, Center for Leadership Studies

last edited: October 17, 2012