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Following her extensive work with leaders over many years Katherine Farnworth has written this blog on ‘What makes a great leader’.

When it comes to leadership, I believe, as Aristotle once said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  In this sense, it is the combination of several elements which makes a great leader; several ingredients make the magic mix, rather than excelling in one area.

One area that I believe is crucial is the ability to provide absolute clarity.  It is so fundamentally important for people to have some sense of purpose, some reason to get up in the morning, that to know what you are ultimately contributing to, and that you do make a difference, can be incredibly fulfilling.  If the goal is so far removed, or not understood, and an individual does not see the link between what they do and how that contributes to the success of the organisation, then a sense of futility can creep in.  It is not just the purpose of the organisation that needs to be understood but how that is communicated and broken down to the level of the individual.  Individuals need to know the answer to the question ‘How do I make a difference here every day?’

Another important aspect is the ability to create the right environment.  This would be an environment that is ‘safe’.  Not in a restrictive and clinical way, but in how it makes people feel.  The narrative within that environment would be felt by all individuals; ‘It is safe to be myself’, ‘It is safe to make mistakes’, ‘It is safe to be creative’, ‘It is safe to be open and honest, especially with the leadership and each other’.  The elements of David Rock’s SCARF model remind us that ‘to minimize danger and maximise reward is an overarching organising principle of the brain’.  The freedom to make decisions and come up with ideas encourages individuals to take responsibility and leaders to empower more.  Provide clarity on the ‘what’, but let people decide the ‘how’.  Leaders need to start from the point of ‘positive intent’ to know that people will do the right thing if given that opportunity, genuinely and wholeheartedly.

The good leader will start with positive intent, trust first rather than only once the evidence dictates that is the right approach.  But what happens when that positive intent has been misplaced, when trust was not deserved?  This is where the good leader must be equally adept.  Not only with providing reward within the safe environment, but also by providing consequence when the objectives are not achieved.  The leader must have the ability to face into difficult conversations, to nip issues in the bud, to provide consequence not just for operational poor performance, but also inappropriate behaviours.  If behaviours were articulated, clarified, measured, reviewed and openly discussed as much as operational targets (think health and safe in a high risk environment) then clarity is provided in a fair environment.  The culture of the organisation, and therefore the performance, would benefit.

Do you have a view on what makes a great leader? If so we would love to hear it.