We all know that every successful organisation needs good leadership. In
today’s competitive business environment it can make the difference between the
ordinary and the extraordinary, success and failure.
But what makes a good business leader? We can all list examples of personal
icons who fit the bill, but when it comes to defining the attributes of
successful leaders, and ranking them in order of importance, it is not so easy.
Having worked with businesses of all sizes, Grant Thornton has watched with
interest how those at the top approach the difficult but crucial art of
leadership. So the results of new research conducted by the firm among 430
business leaders makes for an interesting read.
An overwhelming 77% of respondents consider that it is their reputation for
integrity and honesty that is of prime importance. In contrast, only one in five
cited courage and a willingness to take risks.
Even strong financial knowledge and IT skills are now considered more
important than all of the traditional attributes of creativity, charisma,
strategic thinking, the ability to motivate, communicate and enthuse.
This new wishlist of leadership qualities signals a substantial shift in
priorities compared with a similar study carried out in 2003. Back then, the
ability to articulate a vision was the clear winner.
But what does this mean in practice?
Have today’s business leaders lost their nerve and decided that life on the
safe side is a more attractive proposition? Probably not. But the recent spate
of corporate scandals, and the ensuing demise of some ‘unassailable’ global
brands, has led senior managers to realise that their corporate reputation,
The aggressive, maverick and charismatic leader, who points only to the
profit column as evidence of his success, has had his day.
It is now not enough to do the right thing, but those at the top must make
sure their businesses are also seen to do the right thing, whether it is
compliance to stricter accounting regulations or fulfilling corporate social
At the same time, new and innovative business approaches have gained a high
profile, fuelled by TV programmes such as The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den.
Achieving the necessary balance between compliance, traditional business
skills and the new demands of a more open business environment is a challenge,
but it is a balance that the current generation of leaders must embrace.
With ‘capacity for hard work’ now third in the list of leadership attributes,
and with respondents signaling an overriding concern for honesty and integrity,
it would be easy to assume a return to Victorian Puritanism among business
leaders. Fortunately the need to be flexible and adaptable (now in fourth place)
has redressed the balance.
Management guru Tom Peters remarked in the early nineties that ‘there are
only two types of business: the quick and the dead’. His theory has become
The speed with which technology propels us forward, and the pace of change in
the business environment, will mean the end of businesses that are unable to
adapt to rapid movements in the marketplace.
Fortunately, we did ask business leaders how they set about developing the
attributes they considered most important. The bad news is, there is no magic
route to the top.
Most respondents agreed that the best way to develop the skills is through
experience alone. Exposure to different disciplines also rates highly, and
ambitious directors should be given a company-wide perspective.
A word of warning, however. Those who learn from experience alone tend to be
short on understanding of key business skills when their organisation
experiences fast growth.
Looking at skills gaps plaguing the businesses in the survey, one-third of
companies felt that they needed better communicators and a quarter wanted more
creativity and better strategic thinking. Both are essential to developing and
sustaining the ‘quickness’ needed to stay ahead.
‘People are our greatest asset’ has long been a business catchphrase. Rather
than pay lip service to the importance of people-centric management, 21st
century leaders are seeking to weave the concept into every aspect of corporate
Honesty and integrity should be benchmarks that underpin our day-to-day
dealings. They do not prevent us from being entrepreneurial or taking risks, but
rather set an organisational culture led by softer skills.
Alysoun Stewart is director of growth and strategic services at Grant
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