Leader of the pack

Leader of the pack

The definition of what makes a good business leader varies, but there are certain competencies that every leader should have. By Silke Colquhoun

Earning truckloads of money does not automatically translate into great business leadership. There is a huge difference between being successful in business and being an extraordinary leader. Across the globe, opinions are divided on what it takes to be a great leader, but the general trend is clearly moving towards ethical, visionary leaders who are part of a team and practice humility. Nelson Mandela partly captured this thinking when he said, ‘A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, whereupon others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.’

Arnold Smit, Head of Social Impact at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, says: ‘We need business leaders who are responsive and responsible, wise and courageous. This is not something extraordinary; it is just a matter of living and leading with integrity, empathy and responsibility. They do not need to be pre-occupied by self-interest in running their enterprises, whether large or small. Society will reward those who are perceived to create value for the common good, those who are regarded as honest, fair and compassionate.’


If that’s true, why do many of us still crave populist leaders with planet-sized egos? Well, it’s all due to volatility and angst, according to Harvard Business Review. An article entitled If humble people make the best leaders, why do we fall for charismatic narcissists?’ explains that economic or political crises and uncertainty seduce people into following charismatic but selfish leaders whom they perceive as ‘strong’ – despite evidence suggesting that this type of ‘superhero’ or ‘lone wolf’ leader is likely to worsen the situation.

But then, even that assumption is tricky as leadership theory is a fluid concept that changes according to the economic context, political ideology and numerous other variables.

‘Many researchers have examined what good leadership looks like in Western cultures, but leadership in most of Africa has not been explored in much depth. What we do know is that ideas about leadership are tied to culture, religion, educational background, and language’, states the Centre for Creative Leadership in its White Paper publication on ‘Leadership Development in Africa.’ It gives Ubuntu as an example of the continent’s ‘remarkable’ contribution to leadership philosophy, describing it as ‘a feeling of high responsibility for one’s kin, loyalty to one’s ethnic or family group, and a focus on long-term prosperity.’


Before looking at leadership styles, one has to understand the difference between truly leading an organisation or merely managing it. Nonkululeko Gobodo, founder of Nkululeko Leadership Consulting and hailed as South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant, told Moneyweb, ‘Management means that a vision has been provided, you must just provide the processes and efficiencies to run the operations. While leadership is all about creating that vision, being responsible for making the decisions that the organisation requires to grow and for setting the direction. People are looking up to you.’ Or simply put, the manager administers and the leader innovates.

So, where do we find these innovative leaders? Are they born that way or made? It’s the eternal debate of nature versus nurture. The current thinking is that you need a bit of both. To illustrate this, business leadership is likened to riding a bicycle: while most of us can ride a bike, not everybody can become an Olympic cycling champion. In the same vein, anybody can learn leadership skills but not everybody will be a CEO or start their own business.

Research now looks beyond inherent characteristics such as personality traits towards contingency theories that ask; how does the situation influence leadership? Then there are power and influence theories, which investigate where leaders source their power and how they use it. And there are behavioural theories that explore the questions such as; what does a good leader do? How does he or she do it?

This way various leadership styles have been identified, with the most common ones being:

Autocratic (the boss decides), Democratic (input by subordinates is valued), Laissez-faire (laid-back leadership lacking supervision), Transactional (performance is rewarded or punished) and Transformational (leader as change agent who motivates and inspires).


No matter what type of leader you are, the fundamentals required to secure your corner office usually involve top-level professional skills, knowledge and academic qualifications in your chosen field. But that’s only the beginning. Other pre-requisites that are generally needed include a strong work ethic, discipline, integrity, consistency, decisiveness and the willingness to listen and learn.

Those involved in leadership training have noted a shift away from hard business skills towards self-awareness and emotional intelligence over the past decade. The reasoning is that hard skills can frequently be delegated to technical, financial, legal or other experts but soft skills – paramount for networking as well as building and sustaining relationships – cannot be transferred. In line with this, further key elements for leadership excellence include transparency, authenticity, honesty and good corporate citizenship.

‘We need leaders who are ethical, who understand from the inside out that, what they do, needs to be in the service of profit, certainly, but also always in the service of building a better world, improving the lives of ordinary people and communities where they operate,’ says Mills Soko, Director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. ‘The scale of the development challenges in Africa means that this really is a non-negotiable in business today.’

He adds that educational institutions, especially business schools, have a front-line duty in equipping future leaders with those skills, including the ability to recognise and reject corruption in any form.


You don’t have to be the CEO of a multinational firm or the president of a country to benefit from leadership skills, which can be useful at any professional level and in personal relationships. In South Africa, a multitude of executive short courses, corporate trainers and coaching organisations offer leadership development, on top of company mentorship programmes and in-house training.

Ultimately being a good leader means that you inspire others to follow you – and to possibly become leaders in their own right. Or as someone once phrased it: a great leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. It’s the one who gets others to do the greatest things.

Photography: gallo/gettyimages, istockimages

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