In the world of politics a successful leader is usually defined as an individual – usually male – as an individual with vision, charisma and ideas together with the will and courage to succeed. Likewise in business these qualities are generally assumed to be the hallmark of a good leader. In politics the rewards are generally more geared towards influence and re-election and in business to profit and growth.
Our modern wired world with its instant communication of success and failure beamed around the world makes the job of being a leader sometimes very difficult. However, a discussion about whether or not this is good or bad is futile as it happens and there is little or no chance of turning back. On balance, I believe those who aspire to be leaders as well as those who are leaders need to accept this phenomenon.
So far I have not used the word ‘integrity’ in relation to leadership. This quality is not usually at the forefront of people’s minds when considering this issue. I believe it is essential. If more individual leaders in the banking world had possessed more of it the crisis might have been if not halted, less serious. Of course none of us is perfect and from time to time the majority of people at the top of any organisation have been and continue to be, to use the late Alan Clarke’s words ‘economical with the truth.’
Often a burning personal ambition describes leaders whether on the world stage or nearer to home. Others arrive at the top because they are curious, risk takers, inventive thinkers and, I believe importantly, good team players.
In my own long experience of politics, academia and business I have found the best leaders are those who have the confidence to lead a team, to delegate, to appreciate and to praise those who work with them and to address and rectify problems when they arise at either micro or macro level. When I became leader of the opposition on the City of Edinburgh District Council I had overestimated my support. Only half of the group of 23 wanted me to lead them. My own vote for myself gave me the job! I remember writing in my diary “what on earth have I left myself in for”? Very quickly I had to decide on my strategy.
The first year was very difficult as the internal opposition forces tried to trip me up at every turn, with every policy with every shadow budget, with bizarre ideas and press briefings. I smiled a great deal and treated those who were against me in exactly the same way as those who were for me! Gradually and slowly, assisted by others outside the Council who had experience, including my own late husband who was Chairman of the Scottish Stock exchange I managed to mould a team with shared aspirations and a much more united front. In the following election we gained 40% of the votes cast and deprived the then ruling Party of overall leadership. During the four years I held this post I learned not to be hurt when I was criticised, I learned I did not know all the answers but was not afraid to say so and to ask and was warmed and personally enhanced by the help I received, often from unexpected sources.
Later I co-founded West Lothian Women in Business and chaired that organisation for four years and was able to use the lessons I had learned as a political leader in bringing together women in the world of business and management. It is no coincidence that four years featured in both of these cases. This personal rule of thumb also applied when I left the Board of Edinburgh’s Telford College after my first four year term when I was Chair of Finance. I really believe a good leader know when to quit. After this length of time generally people have already given of their best and can carry their experiences to other fields. In my own case I was Chief Executive Officer of a childcare organisation in Wester Hailes in Edinburgh. I had a year’s consultancy in which to try and get ‘buy in’ to my ideas about giving the children of the 200 families for whom we catered a better start in life. Then I had to work with a Board as well as manage a large staff and, again, I used what I had learned. Sometimes I found it hard to accept I was not the Chairman but accountable to a Board!
There is no one profile of a successful, good leader but as Prince Charles said this week when interviewed on television about taking out a twenty million pound loan to save the house and its contents, “If you don’t try you’ll never know if you might have succeeded”. I think he is right about this!
Christine Richard OBE, FRSA