Monday, June 14, 2010

Competence, Empathy and Courage

Mid-last year I accepted an invitation to address a group of police counter terrorism commanders on the subject of leadership and in preparing my notes I realised that trying to simplify and define the subject was a task fraught with danger. After all, I was sure that this specific audience would already have strong opinions on what they would call 'leadership' based on their own very individual experiences and knowledge of people they considered to be leaders.

Searching all things leadership online, much of what I found suggested that leadership was increasingly being defined in a variety of ways to suit an industry or context. What I wanted was to identify some fundamental elements that could be applied in any environment but especially to my audience.

Fortunately, I was able to call upon a handful of genuine experts on the subject, close friends from all over the world who I consider to be the real thing. So, I sent out a quick email, setting the scene and inviting their thoughts. When I eventually gathered and reviewed their responses, I found that they had all kept it simple, refining their thoughts to just a few key elements - without a single piece of corporate jargon to be found! Ultimately I extracted from the mix three core elements that provide a foundation for any leader in any context: 1. Competence, 2. Empathy, and 3. Courage.

I'll keep the explanation short but essentially, a leader must absolutely know what they are doing, what they are responsible to achieve and, above all, they must instil confidence in their people to trust their judgement (Competence).

Also, a leader must lead by example. They must understand fully what they are asking of their people and understand the impact of their decisions upon them. To do so requires an ability to put themselves in their people's shoes (Empathy).

Finally, having set the course and prepared and resourced their team, leaders must then trust their people to carry out their tasks without interference (or allowing others to interfere) with the plan once 'action' has commenced and, having done so, they must be prepared to stand by them no matter what the result or consequences (Courage). Put more simply: "Back 'em or sack 'em" as my Father-in-law says.

That's it in a nutshell and if I try to capture that all in a quote, I'll go with this one: "
Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the policy you've decided upon is being carried out."- President Ronald Reagan

When I eventually delivered my address I focussed on these three core elements, along with quite a few other issues, all of which, I'm relieved to say was met with a particularly positive response. So, I'll leave you with one final quote which I also included that evening.

"There is a difference between leadership and management. Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision. Its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, of statistics, of methods, timetables and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary. Leaders are essential."
Viscount Slim of Burma

Until next time, I'd appreciate your thoughts, questions and comments: what does leadership mean to you?

All the best,


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  1. I also find that the task of leadership is, for most (all?) roles, expected in addition to the task of management.
    Rarely does a role consist of pure leadership with no expectation of delivering some day to day operational obligations.
    Leadership is more of a challenge due to the need to shift gears continually.

  2. I believe the term 'natural born leader' is true. There is a leader inside of everyone, but it depends on the individual to accept, utilise and develope this trait to achieve what is best for themselves and those they want to inspire.

    We all know some great and poor leaders. The great are because they understand the core values that you (Chris) have outlined and are ever critiquing their own leadership role and actions to better themselves for the next day or moment of leadership. Whereas the poor leaders are self-centred, only inspired to achieve their own goals, despite the damage being done to those they so called lead.


  3. I agree that leadership is natural, artistic and essential. Managers can sometimes be deemed necessary, however fail to deliver; whereas leaders naturally become that and tend to deliver before they are defined.

  4. Thanks everybody for these thoughts.

    An additional observation is that many organisations have a tendency to push up decision-making rather than pushing it down. This can lead to a culture in which the ‘safest’ decision for many is to make no decision at all, instead deferring all to the highest delegated officer, generally the head of a department or functional area. This is further exacerbated by administrative processes that have a predisposed disinclination to accepting decisions from anyone other than the highest authority. Ultimately eroding an organisations ability to cultivate its own leadership talent.

    To encourage and develop leadership potential within an organisation this cycle must be broken. Leaders at every level must be encouraged to exercise decision making within their delegated authority if the organisation is to survive.

  5. Leadership is also about the ability to make incisive assessments with speed and a calm head, it encompasses the skill of being able to quash one's own ego for the good of others whilst still keeping a strong inner compass and sturdy self-confidence, and it should always be about daring to have a vision and acting upon the essence of that dream with commitment and dedication.

  6. I think true leadership is demonstrated by having the capacity to identify people's potential & to empower them to do their very best not just in their roles but for themselves as individuals.
    In my opinion leaders see the bigger picture at all levels, not just their own & steer people towards that so they are all working on a common ground collectively. Leaders must be highly motivated to achieve this.
    I think true leadership comes naturally & just because someone is a manager or ceo doesn't necessarily make them a leader, rather they had the opportunities to get to where they are.