The nature of leadership – an essential understanding for aspiring leaders

leadershipTo me, leadership is a very personal matter: it cannot be taught, though principles can be imparted; it cannot be assumed with the mantle of authority invested by position. It is an affair of the heart. At the heart of the way I operate, both now in business and when I was a serving soldier, are the very people for whom I am responsible and on whom the organisation depends for success. Knowing them, their strengths and weaknesses, their desires and fears, is fundamental to enabling them to give of their best. Deep down all individuals want to do well – and the environment to do just that is created by leaders who know, respect and encourage their people.

The need for leadership appears to be common sense but that very requirement is so often forgotten, or applied in such a way, that it only serves to provide a leaderless environment. All organisations, no matter how small, require leadership to provide direction, purpose and a sense of belonging. This applies across the full spectrum of organisations, whether a local committee or a major, global corporate. Without it organisations will struggle and ultimately fail.

Whilst this may seem obvious, in so many instances I discover organisations which say they have leadership in place but are confusing it with management, much of it learnt on courses. Such confusion is common-place and can have a negative impact on the success of an organisation. The most successful companies consist of people who are motivated, enthusiastic and determined to do their best for the organisation. It is leadership which creates that environment. Management has a part to play but without sound leadership, success is elusive.
My experiences in the British Army taught me much about leadership, how to apply it and what style was appropriate for which circumstances. With commanding officers of regiments changing every two years or so, it was illuminating to see just how the fortunes of an Army unit could alter very quickly, depending upon whether or not a commanding officer was a good and respected leader.  Equally, this is just as true in business. So what is leadership?

A simple definition of leadership is the ability to inspire trust and confidence in those you lead, such that they follow you, knowing that you will do the right thing. Or put it another way, strong leadership persuades those led to do willingly those things which they otherwise would not want to do!  But it is more complex than that – inevitably.

leadership-versus-managementLeadership is very much a personal thing and how you apply it is for you to decide, depending upon your own character and how you feel others perceive you. There are a number of contradictory views about whether or not leadership can be taught. I have been on a number of ‘Leadership’ courses during my life but none of them really taught me to be a leader – but they provided principles to follow and examples from which to learn. It was for me and others on the courses to use those principles and examples to reinforce and enhance personal attitudes towards leadership and put them into practice.

Some people clearly found difficulty with this process, as their own characters were such that adjusting to the demands of leadership was not easy. Naturally reticent people lacked the confidence to be the leader in all circumstances and discovered that they were best leading small groups or as a team player. Some of the more overt characters found it difficult to adjust their dominant style to be the leader people wanted to follow out of trust rather than fear.

So in sum, leadership is a personal thing.  You can be taught the principles and study examples of other leaders, both good and bad – there are lessons to be learnt from each. How you then apply those principles and lessons is down to you, the character you are and the degree of self-confidence you possess. Only you can determine what type of leader you are and how it will influence the business you are in.

Whatever your current views on leadership may be, it is vital that you remember one thing. Your actions as a leader will have a direct impact on your organisation’s prime resource – the people on whom you and the organisation depend for success.

For further reading, you can read this Leadership guide.

John Stokoe

Head of Strategic Development at Dassault Systèmes
John is Head of Strategic Development for Northern Europe at Dassault Systèmes. He is a former Major General in the British Army and, since leaving the Army in 1999, he has gained considerable commercial experience in the construction, infrastructure services and IT sectors, operating at both business unit and Board level.