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Mary Rose McLean on how to spot a good business leader at ten paces

Business leader - Mary-Rose McLean

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States.

President Adams said this in the early 19th century, but it holds true today. In fact, the resonance of this statement blasts through any modern business jargon and gets to the roots of what makes a good leader.

In business, as in life, inspiring leadership is where it’s at. You know instinctively when you’re in the presence of a good leader. Why? Because something they say, or the way they interact with people will inspire you.

What is a good business leader?

It’s not always easy to articulate why someone is a good business leader. Perhaps they have a strong track record of making money, but that’s not what necessarily makes them inspirational. It’s something more difficult to describe, and something that takes years of practice to achieve.

While there are many different management and leadership styles, all of them share certain character traits. Think about all of the great, inspiring leaders you have known, whether in business, politics or other spheres of your life. Chances are they all have the following characteristics in common.

  1. They’re creative and not afraid to innovate

The late, great Steve Jobs, co-founder and marketing maverick of Apple Inc said: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

For innovative ideas, leaders need to be open-minded, unafraid and willing to allow their creativity and imagination to lead their development. Starting a business and making it profitable in its first year is do-able for many people. What separates business leaders from those that fail is the ability to keep their business profitable, year after year, decade after decade.

Creativity, innovation and flexibility allow new ideas to propel companies forward. Long-term business leaders keep innovating, iterating and improving. It’s not always just about ‘putting the hours in’. Without creativity, that becomes wasted time. When things slow down, or begin to fail, a totally innovative approach is needed.

  1. They’re truly self-aware

Perhaps the most important trait of a good leader is having true self-awareness. Being able to understand their own weaknesses, as well as their strengths, is invaluable.

Mediocre leaders will pretend they have no weaknesses. They will go to the ends of the earth to cover up their weaknesses. Rather than bringing them up openly, and addressing their human traits, they are in denial. Worse still is a leader who is completely unaware of their weaknesses. This will leave them vulnerable in the long-term, and often without the respect of their workforce.

  1. They make swift decisions

If you’re not decisive, you’ll never be a great leader. The best leaders can make decisions quickly and without self-doubt. That’s not to say that they don’t analyse the best options before making the decision, but they innately know what to do, and they trust themselves.

Many leaders ignore the fact that making no decision is a decision by default. If they are paralysed by the fear of making the wrong decision, they often make none at all. This causes larger problems and is always the wrong (non) decision.

Good leaders have often learned this lesson through experience. And when it’s happened once, they won’t let it happen again.

  1. They treat everyone equally

Regardless of the circumstances, a good leader always treats everyone with respect and fairly. There are no exceptions to this. If a leader does not do this, they cannot be construed effective, great or truly successful.

  1. They have integrity

How can we define integrity? How about the kind of leader that engenders respect from his or her team without having to constantly make the point they’re in charge? So many business leaders hide behind their job title when making unfair, immoral or unethical decisions that effect their workforce. They might insist their position of CEO entitles them to do so, but they will not earn anyone’s respect.

Integrity is not just about ‘doing the right thing’. It’s more about leading with internalised concepts of what’s right and wrong, and setting these as the benchmark for the business.

A company’s culture, reputation, success and longevity begins and ends with its leader. Be a good one.