What makes a good leader?

22 November 2022 by Ed Wyeth
blog author

As a coach, I see leaders and potential leaders wrestle with the question I ask above. I apologise for being non-committal, but there really is no straightforward, ‘right’ answer.

One of the most admirable traits I see being demonstrated by inspiring leaders is the ability to be genuinely interested and invested in their people, even when time is in short supply. I’m thinking about VIPs with aspirational titles and pay packets to match, who intentionally spend time in what others might dismiss as ‘fluff’ – i.e. the kind of discussion that doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem or solve the burning issue at hand. We’re talking hobbies and holidays, children and Netflix suggestions (of which I’m actually eternally grateful!). In a culture that often prioritises the adage ‘time is money’, such leaders recognise the true value of connection.

In my mind, the platform of leadership is built on connection. Research by Dr Amy Cuddysuggests that when we judge others and especially our leaders, we do so on the following two primary dimensions of social judgement:

1.     How lovable are they? (Qualities such as warmth, communion and trustworthiness which inform intent)

2.     How fearsome are they? (Qualities such as strength, agency and competence which inform capability).

If you had to pick one, which would be most important to you?

This was a conundrum that Niccolò Machiavelli contemplated back in the days of the Renaissance. Hedging his bets, Machiavelli shared, “It may be answered that one should wish to be both… but because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

Five hundred years on and this ‘safe’ approach is one that many leaders still use as their default setting. The issue here is that emphasising strength, competence and credentials over establishing trust risks eliciting fear - and fear will only inhibit the safe environment the leader is setting out to build. As the iconic Baseball player Babe Ruth once said, you must “never let the fear of striking out get in your way”. 

I'd like to suggest that a better conduit for leadership is warmth. Projecting warmth through a simple smile (described by the genius that is David Brailsford as your “best marginal gain” in any situation as it has the genuine potential to transform the outcome), a nod, or an open gesture helps you immediately connect with those around you, demonstrating that you see, hear, understand and can be trusted by them.

What is one action you can take today to genuinely connect with a peer, client or stakeholder? 

Leadership is evolving and thanks to the likes of Dr Brené Brown and others like her, vulnerability and courage are now more popular than ever before. Traits such as authenticity and openness create space for ‘psychological safety’ - the trait Google found to be most important when building high-performing teams. Now more than ever, the world needs leaders who are able to demonstrate emotional conviction and take decisive action. We no longer need to choose between head and heart.