What distinguishes great leaders from average ones?

Harvard Professor J. Sterling Livingston argued in ‘The myth of the well-educated manager’ that the effectiveness of a leader is not dependent on their education and that there are four key skills, which define effective leadership. So, what distinguishes effective leaders from average ones?

1. Effective decision-making. If you face a problem believing that you have to find the right answer, you can be setting yourself up for failure. Effective leaders are practical and responsive in their approach to decision making and they know that they cannot keep waiting to make a perfect decision. They have the confidence in situations to make a decision that has a high probability of success and which is consistent with the desired outcome. Crucially, they know how to make decisions.

2. Problem finding. Effective leaders don’t just solve problems; they look for them and seek to neutralize them. They continually ask questions and look for possible solutions. When a problem arises, they will be better equipped to deal with it as they will have asked ‘why’ enough times to get to the source of the issue.

3. Opportunity finding. Effective leaders constantly look for opportunities to redefine and improve direction. They will find the right things to do rather than always seeking to do things the right way.

4. Natural style. It doesn’t matter how many opportunities you identify or problems you solve, if you can’t inspire people to take action you will have little chance of success. There is no one correct natural style and strong leaders recognize this and adapt theirs according to the each situation.

Inspirational leaders lead by example, words and vision. They are trustworthy, committed and imaginative and they accept responsibility. They keep their promises and are very aware that their reputation is their brand and manage that brand with prodigious attention to detail. They tell the truth and if they are in a position where they can’t share everything, they explain that they cannot. They make it easy for people to work with them; they take the time to see people rather then leading through email. They are predictable and know how to manage their mood. They don’t fall victim to hyperbole or hubris and they make their teams feel safe.

The ability to be enthusiastic and encourage ideas, look for solutions, accept what is unchangeable and be positive is essential. The recognition of the importance of humility is also extremely important. “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.” (David Packard of Hewlett Packard).

Finally, authenticity is fundamental. Great leaders live their values and speak in a language that others understand. They are consistently themselves and don’t seek approval but rather give meaningful praise to others. They have clearly defined goals and make time to explain and communicate those goals. In the words of Molière: “It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we will be accountable.”

Luan de Burgh is the Founding Director of The de Burgh Group and heads a team of consultants who specialise in delivering leading communication, presentation and impact training to businesses of all sizes from SMEs to FTSE 100 companies. For over ten years he has worked extensively with leaders in business (including law, finance, pharmaceutical, PR, retail, manufacturing and property) as well as with well-known figures in politics and the media.