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Great Leadership – what it is and what happens when you do it too much.

Leadership is multi-faceted and complex. That’s why there are so many books on the topic as well as blogs, videos, articles, training courses and podcasts. At =mc Learning we know this from our leadership courses, which often start with the following questions: what do you think are the characteristics of effective leaders? Who do you think is a great leader and why? The answers we get from our participants are varied. In fact, participants on our more recent Transformational Leadership course gave all these answers:

Whilst the answers are varied, no matter who we meet with, we frequently hear about five themes that people identify with when they think about great leaders. These are:

  1. Inspirational – leaders make you want to follow them. Their vision is compelling and meaningful to you.
  2. Values-driven and ethical – leaders have clear values and model these in their behaviour. They make decisions that hold these values up.
  3. Not afraid to challenge – leaders innovate and look for ways to make things better. They challenge people to stretch, develop and try new things. They also challenge people who don’t do the right things or don’t do things right.
  4. Approachable and empathetic – leaders listen and respect you. They make you feel valued and encourage you to be open too. They see you and recognise your efforts.
  5. Collaborative and empowering – leaders see that great things can be done when people work together, so they build connections and enable others. They give you the tools and information you need to do the things you need to do.

Therefore, to be a great leader all you need to do emulate these five characteristics. The challenge is that to do all of this at once is a very tall order. Great leaders have a secret sixth skill: knowing when to do what, and not trying to do it all.

The key to great leadership is to be flexible in your approach, but also to develop in all of these areas. All too often we hear about a charismatic leader who may be brilliant in one way and yet totally horrid to work with in another way. So, whilst we have five characteristics to develop, we also have to be mindful of not getting stuck on any one of them. Otherwise, the results can be detrimental:

1.Stuck on doing the right thing

A passion for the vision gives you the energy you need to get to it. It keeps you going when all around you the world is changing. It motivates you and keeps you purposeful. However, leaders who plough forward to get there without communicating it effectively to others are rarely inspirational. Instead, the passion for the vision can become a diktat that others are less invested in. People will not put in their efforts. At worst, they may leave you to it. Leaders who do not inspire others to share the vision and go on the journey with them may find they are going it alone, and in turn that may make it impossible to get there. Find out what other people want to follow, communicate on a level that matters to them rather than relying on the vision alone.

2. Stuck on doing it right and doing it right now

Knowing your values means knowing what is right and what is wrong. However, when others are aware of your values, you can worry about being criticised for doing the wrong thing. This can mean decisions are hard to make, leading to a situation of analysis paralysis and dithering. Conversely, the pressure to get things right can mean a leader makes a decision too quickly, in order to be seen as decisive and taking action. Leaders who don’t step back, weigh up, explore issues and encourage others to do the same, make poor decisions. In a world where there is rarely a single answer to a problem, we must choose between options. Use values as a guide, not a stick to beat with.

3. Stuck on being right

Challenging the status quo, ruffling feathers, and making waves are all good things. Challenge is how we make improvements and innovate. Spotting an opportunity to make things better, and then going ahead and making it better is fantastic.  However, challenging the way things are done, or what things are done, is different to being a challenge to work with. Being right, and telling everyone else they are wrong will not win over anyone and doesn’t inspire people to make changes. Leaders who challenge too much run the risk of scaring or offending people. They may even find that no one else wants to make change happen. To overcome resistance, link challenge to learning – help people to see what they can gain from change, not just telling them what they lose by staying as they are. High challenge needs to be coupled with high engagement.    

4. Stuck on the right person

As shown earlier, recognising you can’t go it alone is an excellent quality in a leader. As such leaders look out for people they can develop, and reward the biggest and brightest success. In turn, these rewarded-ones become shining stars, proof positive the leader has lead them well. However, not all stars shine at the same time. Leaders who fail to recognise all contributions can be seen as having a best pal, and nobody likes a favourite.  Leaders who encourage some to the detriment of others are not being fair nor are they being inclusive. Success comes in many forms, and recognition for success is needed in many ways. Everyone needs to be championed in a way that motivates and encourages them. Find out what people need from you, proactively spot all successes, and regularly celebrate everyone’s achievements.

5. Stuck on doing it the right way

Leaders are often in their position because they have earned it. They have learned, developed and become accountable for doing the thing well, whatever the thing is.  They often enjoyed doing it. They are promoted and given the remit to help others to do the thing, and show them how it is done. They teach, train and handover knowledge. Leaders can however become disheartened once they realize the very thing they enjoyed doing is no longer the thing they are primarily responsible for. Leaders may hold onto tasks for fear others won’t do it the same way. This is a barrier to the development of others, and can mean leaders get overworked and overwhelmed. Show people the way, and clearly articulate what the right outcomes are. And then let them do it their way.


There is no single right way to be a great leader just as there are lots of ways to be a bad one.  Instead, great leaders know they need to identify what is the right thing to do for right now. Further, they enable other people, helping them with what they need to do, to get the right thing right.

Leaders change their approach in the right way, proactively switching approaches as needed rather than by happy accident. And are happy to do so.

Next steps:

To boost your leadership, consider undertaking a 360 analysis of your leadership style. Using a structured and established tool is a great way to get effective, meaningful feedback. Try Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Practices inventory.

We use this tool in our Transformational Leadership programme. On the programme you will receive 360◦ feedback on your leadership behaviours, as well as range of tools and approaches to help you lead your team to greater results in more empowering ways.

If you want to discuss other ways to boost your self-awareness as a leader, get in touch online or call 020 7978 1516 to speak to one of our experienced coaches.

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...