IDEAL Leadership: Integrity, Decisiveness, Empathy and the Ability to Let GoSophia Garibaldi 7th May 2021
“Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” —Steve Jobs
At some point in our lives we have all heard the phrase “leaders are born, not made”. Thomas Carlyle propagated this view in the mid 1800’s, and it has remained stubbornly omniscient since. It suggests that certain individuals are born with innate qualities that predispose them to be successful leaders. This underpins the idea that only a small set of people can actually fill these types of roles successfully.
As our understanding of personality traits progressed, behavioural theorists put forward a new belief: it is not inherent characteristics that make a good leader, rather it is a leader that makes themselves successful based on learnable behaviour. As Vince Lombardi, the American football coach, put it in the 1970s: “Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile”
So, where should you focus your effort to become a successful leader?
According to a survey conducted by Robert Half in 2016, over 75% of workers said that integrity was the number one attribute that a leader ought to possess. Leaders who are demonstrably honest and have strong moral principles inspire trust in their team with “their ability, their benevolence and their integrity”. Team members are willing to be more open with leaders they trust and are also more committed to them. They associate the integrity trait with kindness and with being driven by well-intentioned motives rather than selfish intentions. Tim Hird, the executive director of Robert Half, argued that it is the “A leader who has both integrity and competence is a very valuable asset to organizations, and over time tends to be more effective”.
To improve or maintain professional integrity, leaders need to regularly evaluate whether his or her own behaviour is in line with their own core principles, and check that these also align with the values of the business.
A fear of making mistakes will naturally effect people’s ability to move forward with business decisions. Risk-averse behaviour can be further exacerbated by ‘analysis paralysis’ which occurs “when the fear of either making an error or forgoing a superior solution outweighs the realistic expectation or potential value of success in a decision made in a timely manner”. This leads to “incessant information gathering” which might appear to be fruitful but results in being more counter-productive rather than beneficial.
Decisiveness is also considered a key quality in leading and retaining staff. An indecisive leader is seen as hampering the business’s prospects, frustrating to work for, and also detrimental to their team’s careers. By contrast, decisive leaders are seen as more responsible and accountable, more confident and goal-oriented and less prone to chopping and changing their approach.
A study conducted by Harvard University suggested that women leaders have a greater ability to weigh the cost of delaying their decision-making against the cost of making a poor choice. Taking a more comprehensive approach when informing their decisions makes them more confident about the choices they make. The study pointed out that that boards with a higher female representation experience a 53% higher return on equity, a 66% higher return on invested capital and a 42% higher return on sales.
To become a better decision-maker there are a few behavioural adjustments that can be made:
- set a time frame for your decision-making process, but give yourself a realistic deadline;
- encourage team feedback and attain a view of what other key business stakeholders think; and
- get someone to play “devil’s advocate” to challenge the status quo.
This might appear to be the most ‘unlearned’ of the behaviours discussed here – but actually, there are reasonably easy-to-adopt strategies to become more empathetic in your approach.
Study after study shows that successful leadership is deeply connected to the ability to display empathic behaviour: if you cannot understand people how can you expect to successfully lead and manage them? Empathy enables you to predict the effect your decisions and actions will have on your team. On the other hand, without empathy it is difficult to elicit any degree of loyalty, build successful teams and nurture new generations of strong leaders.
The key here is not to interpret someone’s needs according to your own natural reaction, but to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and interpret their needs and behaviour according to their persona. Psychologists refer to this as ‘vicarious introspection’, which is defined as “a way of elaborating the experience [of others] captured and made one’s own by means of empathic receptivity”.
Some things to keep in mind when trying to improve your empathic abilities include:
- give yourself time to think and recognise your own natural biases. It is virtually impossible to remove your own bias, but if you are aware of it, you can prevent yourself from reacting without considering the other person’s perspective;
- don’t exploit empathy: compassion should be rewarded with returned empathy;
- don’t attempt to ‘fix’ people, aim to comprehend them: trying to solve someone else’s issue might actually result in them feeling unheard – listen to them, encourage them but do not try to ‘fix’ them.
The Ability to Let Go
New leaders often struggle with the transition from doing to delegating and leading. When leaders are able to delegate responsibilities to their employees they are able to free some of their time which can be redirected towards higher-value activities and more pressing matters: not only does it give them more space for strategic thinking – 96% of leaders said they lacked time for this – but it also allows them to focus on matters that only they can effectively deal with.
Effective delegation takes place when a leader is confident enough to let go of the reins. This can only happen if they are sure that their team is well prepared to take responsibility, trusting that they will be able to work efficiently and independently. It is the team leader’s responsibility to lay the ground, providing honest and open communication about all the functions they are delegating, and additional training where necessary.
Letting go sounds like the easy option: it is not. It requires diligent preparation, planning, confidence, trust, and the recognition that your team may actually do some things differently (and better) than you. It is also really important to reassure the team that you can be a point of reference for any questions, concerns and ideas if necessary.
Integrity, decisiveness, empathy and the ability to let go are key to leadership, and to the growth potential of your business. In most instances, we can train ourselves and improve those qualities of successful leadership. In turn, this can have a dramatic impact on the success of the business, and your career.
Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.