What Makes a Good Leader? Part One

Gaius Julius Caesar, Rimini Italy Photo by Georges Jansoone

Gaius Julius Caesar, Rimini Italy Photo by Georges Jansoone

The other day I came across this article in the Huffington Post, which suggests that if you really want to get to the top of the tree – at Westminster at least – you need a facelift. And this isn’t just an idle thought – oh, no, this is all according to research by a “facial mapping expert.” Here are the opening lines to give you a flavour of what this is all about:

 “Hosting the Olympics, forging “One Nation” or laying out three years of successful political policies won’t get you ahead in Westminster, new research suggests.

 If Boris Johnson or Ed Miliband really want to reach the pinnacle of politics they should invest in £25,000 of plastic surgery instead.

Research by a UK facial mapping expert, Dr Chris Solomon, has identified the facial features most associated with “success and leadership in the workplace”.”

And then it goes on to display a series of pictures of what a leader should or shouldn’t look like, explaining which facial characteristics indicate leadership qualities or not, as the case may be.”

The sum of it all is: David Cameron (“call me Dave”) and Nick Clegg (“Cleggers”) are okay, Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson need to get a facelift.

This is a load of rubbish

Of course it is.

The idea of gauging leadership qualities by how someone looks is sheer, unadulterated nonsense. This reminds me of the craze for phrenology in the 19th century – judging a person by the bumps on his head (you can find many references to this in the works of Dickens and Bronte). I thought we’d grown out of this sort of thing.

The people whose idea it was to commission such “research” should be ashamed of themselves. And so should the people at the Huffington Post who decided to actually publish this article.

It’s what a person is like within and how he or she acts or behaves that matters – not whether they happen to be photogenic. Once upon a time, the average age for a leader was about 50 to 65 – how many great leaders have there been in the past, who wouldn’t get a look in today?

 So what makes a good leader?

Having vented my spleen on the atrocious article on facial mapping, I asked myself the question:

What are the qualities that go to make up a good leader?

Now, although I have some opinions of my own, I’m not quite sure whether I’m qualified to give them. After all, I’ve never been in a leadership position myself – not in the workplace, as I made clear in my very first post. It’s not as if I’m Jack Welch former CEO of General Electric talking to you “Straight from the Gut” – I’m just little old humble Malachi Brown, who wouldn’t know how to run a company if it were handed to him on a plate.

On the other hand, while I’ve never been a boss, I have been supervised by one. And maybe this is sufficient qualification – after all, every employee has his own eyes and ears, and must have some idea of what sort of qualities he expects in his boss. In short, each person in the workplace needs to ask themselves the question:

“What qualities do I want my boss to have, so that I can do my own job properly?”

So, having convinced myself of my insolence in daring to assume that I was qualified to give an opinion, I am now thoroughly convinced that I have every right to do so. So there.

To my mind, there are two qualities that stand out for me:

  • Delegation – the ability to delegate;
  • Decisiveness – the ability to make decisions.

I shall deal with the first quality first – obviously – and then go on to the second quality in a separate post.

Delegation – A Good Leader is Lazy!

Ironic isn’t it. I’ve actually had bad bosses that were lazy. In fact, it was because of their laziness that I considered them to be bad. So what do I mean when I say that a good leader is lazy?

Photo by Steve Eng on Flickr

Photo by Steve Eng on Flickr

I remember my Dad telling me about one place he worked at. The manager of the division wasn’t known to be particularly bright – he hadn’t gone to university, or done anything else really spectacular. But he did seem to have a knack of being able to get on with people. His duties seemed to be very light, as he spent most of his time at his desk – which was empty – reading the newspaper!

So how was he a good boss? Or, rather, how was he considered to be a good manager? Well, his own boss had this to say about him:

“If he’s not doing anything, then everything must be running smoothly, and everyone under him must be doing their job properly.”

And that’s really it in a nutshell. The manager’s job is to delegate as much as possible. His job is basically to make sure that the tasks under his supervision are being carried out by those who are competent to deal with them.

I remember my Dad giving me an example of a bus company. The manager, sitting at his desk doesn’t want to be bothered with people coming up to him and saying:

“Sir, Number 51 bus has arrived on time.”

“Sir, Number 52 bus has just left the depot on time.”

“Sir, Number 53 bus has just reached Number 42 Park Crescent on time.”…

What he does want to hear is:

“Sir, Number 63 bus has had a big smash up with a giant fifteen foot alligator at the bottom of Park Row.”

By Larry Wentzel on Flickr

By Larry Wentzel on Flickr

In other words, the boss doesn’t want to know when things are running smoothly – they should be, shouldn’t they? He hired you on the assumption that you could do the job properly, and you’re doing it properly. Why should he be told this?

On the other hand, the boss does want to know when the s has hit the proverbial f. When things have gone out of kilter. A good boss will need to know and be on the spot to sort it all out. So on hearing about Number 63 and the alligator, he’ll put the paper down and go to the scene of the crime.

Okay, we all know that the bit about colliding with the alligator is made up. Though it could be true in Florida. What about some arguments from “real life” and not from anecdotes from Malachi’s Dad?

Warren Buffett – not just a super investor

Warren Buffett  Photo by Mark Hirschey

Warren Buffett Photo by Mark Hirschey

Most people will have heard of Warren Buffett by now. Tends to compete with Bill Gates and  Mexico’s Carlos Slim as the World’s richest man. Buffet is regarded as the greatest investor of all time, having delivered an average annual yearly return of 20-25% for his shareholders. 

There are lots of articles and books on Buffett, and how he makes his money. If you read enough of them, you’ll become familiar with certain phrases – how he likes to invest in well managed businesses with a good “moat”, around them –  companies like Coca Cola and Proctor & Gamble.

So much stress is laid upon Buffet’s investment skill, that not much is said about his management abilities. For example, how many people know that when Saloman Bothers were caught up in a bond scandal in the nineties, it was Buffet who stepped in as Chairman and saved the bank from collapse?

But going back to Buffett’s style, one thing that stuck in my mind is that he rarely interferes with the management of the businesses he invests in. Buffett’s attitude is simply to leave them alone and let them get on with the job:

“If a manager of a business I buy needs my help running it, then we’re both in trouble.”

And of course, that’s how it should be. He’s already selected the stock as an investment because the business is well managed – so if he considers the management up to the job, why do they need him to tell them what to do?

The Marquess of Salisbury

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

All this reminds me of the Marquess of Salisbury. Who? The Marquess of Salisbury was the last peer of the realm to be Prime Minister of Great Britain, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His leadership style was also of the “let them get on with it” variety.

“As leader of the government, Salisbury differed in his conduct of the office from the two other great prime ministers of the age, Gladstone and Disraeli. Both of these were party men who kept their Cabinet colleagues on a short leash. Lord Salisbury, liking to run the Foreign Office without interruption, assumed that his colleagues would feel the same about their ministries, and he left them alone. The Prime Minister, he believed, was primus inter pares; ministers were members of a Cabinet, and not henchmen of the Prime Minister.”1

And this is Salisbury’s advice to a young consular agent in Zanzibar who’s cabled for instructions on how to deal with a native revolt2:

”Do whatever you think best. Whatever you do will be approved – but be careful not to undertake anything which you cannot carry through.”

Which is what it should be. The consular agent has been hired to do a job – so we assume that he’s competent to do it. The good manager will assume that this is the case, and so he’ll “let them get on with it”.

Of course, when one thinks about it, the Prime Minister doesn’t have a particular department of his own to run. The Home Office, the Treasury, Trade and Industry, Education – all these ministries are someone else’s affair. The PM’s role is to pick the right person to head the department and leave them alone. Possibly one of the past masters at this skill was Harold Macmillan, who seemed to have delegated so much that his afternoons were free to enjoy Jane Austen novels!

In Part Two we shall look at the quality of decisiveness, and we’ll come across three more Prime Ministers – one quite recent, and two from yesteryear. In the meantime, ta ta for now!


1. Dreadnought by Robert K Massie page 201.
2. Ibid, pages 202-203.

Related Posts