From courage to commitment – the five Cs that make a great leader

Leadership is a fascinating, complex and multi-dimensional subject.

What makes a great leader? How do great leaders inspire people? And how does this all come together to enable people to build great organisations? These questions have fuelled debate for centuries, between philosophers, academics and business practitioners.

But whether you consider leadership a skill, a character trait, a behaviour, or a process, there’s no denying its ability to make or break a company. Your employees’ thinking patterns, emotional responses and business conduct will often depend on the actions of an influential few – and that power can be harnessed for better or for worse.

The pillars of leadership

So let’s take a look at the five fundamental pillars of leadership, and how – for SMEs in particular – a great leader can be the difference between surviving and thriving.

1. Communication: To succeed as a leader you have to build meaningful relationships at all levels: which is why communication plays such an integral part in a leader’s role. From motivating employees, to persuading key stakeholders, to delivering bad news to the company, the way you communicate with your followers is crucial. That includes speaking emphatically, showing optimism, and using simple, understandable and repeatable language.

To succeed as a leader you have to build meaningful relationships at all levels: which is why communication plays such an integral part in a leader’s role.

A widely-quoted article in the Journal of Business Psychology showed that when a leader can communicate effectively, it has a positive effect on overall employee engagement. An employee is more likely to mark their boss highly when that boss communicates clearly. Great leaders are diplomatic, honest and succinct in their delivery. They engage their audience on a personal level. They open themselves up willingly to challenges and differing opinions. And one of the most important (yet sometimes overlooked) qualities of good communication is the ability to listen. Listening carefully to the needs and opinions of followers at all levels builds a trust and rapport that can’t be achieved by any other means.

2. Confidence: To lead anyone – whether it’s a company, a team or an individual – takes confidence. Not bravado or arrogance, but rather a strong sense of self-assurance. A confident leader feels secure in their decisions, their expertise, and the belief that they can accomplish their goals. Their ability to press forward with a clear vision in mind, without backtracking or second-guessing themselves, lends vital momentum to their business. It also reinforces the mission and purpose of the business, continuously reassuring employees of the value of their work and positively shaping the way in which they perform their roles and interact with colleagues and customers.

3. Courage: As Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.’ Great leaders see courage as an essential component of innovation and long-term success, so they aren’t afraid to break barriers or take calculated risks. After all, no matter how ground-breaking your goal or vision, you need the courage to act on it. Without that you can’t make a difference, or bring about necessary change.

Leaders also need courage in the face of challenges and setbacks. Particularly in SMEs, where conditions are constantly changing and evolving, and where mistakes can quickly arise, leaders need the courage to take responsibility – and to take action in resolving them.

4. Compassion: A key ingredient of effective leadership that’s not always given enough credit is compassion. Gestures of empathy and humility, no matter how small, will be recognised and valued by the people you are leading. Simply taking a few moments to check in with them – finding out whether they’re stressed, or excited by their work, or enjoying the challenge of a particular project – will have more positive results than you might think. As highlighted in a 2014 article published in Journal of Managerial Psychology, leaders with strong interpersonal skills are linked to higher levels of employee engagement, which in turn is linked to increased employee health and wellbeing. And with a healthy and happy workforce comes an abundance of short and long-term benefits –improved productivity and working relationships, better collaboration and increased loyalty.

5. Commitment: Finally, strong leaders need to be committed. They need to be committed to their workforce, their company and their vision. As Steve Jobs put it, ‘You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.’ Leadership is difficult, and often takes time to bring results. Are you fully committed to what you’re doing? If you don’t truly believe in the mission or values of the company, or aren’t fully invested in the successes of your team, you won’t find it possible to inspire or lead.

If you don’t truly believe in the mission or values of the company, or aren’t fully invested in the successes of your team, you won’t find it possible to inspire or lead.

And great leaders need to be committed to themselves. They recognise the responsibility and duty involved in their role. They understand that the expectations surrounding them are higher than those of their colleagues. This doesn’t mean shying away from direct involvement – because, while expressing your purpose and mission is important, it’s the hands-on demonstration of those things that matters most. Displaying your dedication for all to see, rather than simply talking about it, has a far greater impact on your followers.

Beware the dark side

The benefits of great leadership are well-documented, especially on employee wellbeing and productivity. Democratic leaders – those who engage in supportive communication, encourage follower participation and value their contribution – are linked to increased follower satisfaction and participation, and lower staff turnover and absenteeism. As well as a happier workforce, and therefore happier customers, evidence has also shown that leadership style, particularly inspirational leaders in small businesses, can have a positive effect on innovation.

But what about bad leadership? What if leadership is manipulated or misused? What if, instead of being a positive mentor or role model to other employees, a leader uses their power for manipulation and personal gain?

‘Toxic leaders’, a term coined by Jean Lipman-Blumen, refers to leaders who have an ‘insatiable ambition that prompts [them] to put their own power, glory and fortunes above their followers’ needs.’ If you’ve seen an example of toxic leadership, inside or outside the workplace, you’ll understand how many guises it can take. From manipulation, deception and mistreatment, to deliberately ignoring incompetence or disregarding human rights, its effects are pervasive and devastating. No matter where toxic leadership comes from, it will have adverse repercussions. Beyond the immediate ethical issues, as Lipman-Blumen notes, toxic leaders will ‘wreak profound and lasting damage’ for companies. And especially in SMEs, you can expect it to trigger high staff turnover and lower productivity. In a meta-analysis of leadership studies, Schyns and Schilling found that increased destructive leadership was associated with reduced follower wellbeing and individual performance, as well as increased turnover intention and counterproductive work behaviour.

These effects will seriously impact all areas and levels of the business, and in the end, inevitably, will also be felt by customers. A zero-tolerance attitude to all manifestations of toxic leadership is the only way to ensure your company and workforce are protected from these adverse effects, and the only way to avoid a catastrophic impact on your bottom-line results.

How will the five Cs differentiate your company?

Done correctly, leadership is a key driver for your business. Employees thrive under great leaders, and suffer under poor leaders. Even so, across the world and in all industries, leadership is often confused with management. A review of global management development by Terence Mauri, published this year in Strategic Direction, found that many businesses currently face a chronic leadership gap, with many employees being over-managed and under-led.

A lack of leadership causes confusion, misdirection and significant gaps between strategy and execution.

A lack of leadership causes confusion, misdirection and significant gaps between strategy and execution. As a result, scores of businesses have floundered over the years. Great leadership is rare, and if you can master it, you’ll have a key advantage over your competitors. Yet poor leadership impacts every area of business.

So, how can you harness the power of leadership in your business?

Whatever your company or industry, the crucial five Cs – communication, confidence, courage, compassion and commitment – will be at the heart of your personal success as a leader. According to Mauri, leadership around the world is undergoing a huge and long-overdue shift, with an emphasis on learning at its heart. The best way to enhance your leadership is through learning. You must be willing to invest your time and energy to improve your skills, recognise your strengths, identify areas where you fall short and take opportunities to improve them.

After all, as television pioneer Donald McGannon reminds us, ‘Leadership is an action, not a position.’ Mastering these five fundamental elements, and using them to continuously and patiently channel your influence as a leader, will help you harness the power of real leadership. Once you’ve struck the perfect leadership chord your company will enjoy a stronger, more united workforce, happier customers, and better results all round.

tanvir 150x150 fsAbout the author: Tanvir Haque, Founder of Freshstone Consulting. 
Tanvir is currently the Chief Commercial Officer at Lifecare International, and he is the Founder and Non-Executive Director of Freshstone Consulting. He thrives on developing customer-centric business relationships, and as such he is currently focused on revolutionising Lifecare’s customer experience and driving the company’s digital transformation plans – all with the aim of unlocking Lifecare’s full technology potential. With a career spanning back more than 20 years, Tanvir’s experience has been gathered in professional services, banking, and telecommunications, having worked with PwC in Sydney, Andersen in Sydney and London, and Standard Chartered Bank in London. He relocated to Dubai in 2008 and spent a number of years advising and consulting international businesses on how to drive growth before joining Lifecare in 2015. Tanvir graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the Australian National University in his home town of Canberra and is a qualified Chartered Accountant and a member of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand.