How To Be A Leader

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How To Be A Leader

13 November 2014

Have your brainstorms on a Ferris wheel and other insider tips from Mr Anthony Gell, author of <i>The Book of Leadership</i>.

Remember the iconic Ferris wheel scene from the 1949 noir classic, The Third Man? Mr Orson Welles, playing Harry Lime, tells the idealistic Holly Martins to look down at the tiny people below, and says, “If I said you could have £20,000 for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money – without hesitation?” Well, that scene ran through my head when I heard of one CEO who told his entire management to get on the London Eye for a brainstorming session, equipped with only a Flipboard and two or three almost impossible goals for the team to achieve that quarter. Everyone had to come up with at least 20 ideas on how to achieve these goals before they could get off. 

It takes 30 minutes to complete a ride on the London Eye, and this CEO told me that the greatest ideas came up (often the 18th, 19th or 20th suggestion) around the 28th or 30th minute. That’s because his staffers were either desperate for the toilet, or aware that if they didn’t deliver – though he may not try to push them off at full height, as Harry does in the film – he was going to make them go around again.

What can we take from this? That epiphanies occur more often on Ferris wheels? Or that great leaders not only think differently, but have faith that their staff will be able to come up with the goods under pressure. I was really trying to channel this “think outside the box” mentality when I decided to launch my start-up, LeadersIn, for which I have built a successful business out of interviewing great leaders.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the world’s most famous CEOs, including Sir Terry Leahy, former CEO of Tesco, and Mr Robert Senior, Europe, Middle East and Africa CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi – entrepreneurs who have created multimillion-dollar (some even multibillion) organisations from scratch. The aim of each interview was to find out first-hand what has made these folk stand out from the crowd, enabling them to rise to the top. If I could find that out, I could share the formula with the world and help everybody get ahead. And that’s what I’ve done in my new book, The Book of Leadership: How to Get Yourself, Your Team and Your Organisation Further Than You Ever Thought Possible. Below, I’ve distilled the top 10 traits that make a great leader.

Great Leaders...

Courage is not just important for leaders – it’s essential. It takes courage to lead a team into the unknown, or speak at a company meeting in front of 500 people, or launch a new product with no guarantees of success – and it’s natural to feel afraid in these situations. Great leaders feel the fear and do it anyway.

...Focus on their natural strengths

“What are your strengths and what are your weaknesses?’’ is one of the most overused interview questions of all time. But for leaders, it’s an essential question to consider. All the leaders I’ve interviewed are confident because they’re very sure what value they bring to the world. The bottom line is, if you want to be a great leader, it’s essential to focus on what you’re good at – it brings you the confidence that you need in order to lead others.

...Are time management masters

Time management is about measuring the results that you achieve in the time available to you. All the CEOs I’ve interviewed have something in common: they work hard, but they work hard on the right things – so they’re chilled, but insanely effective. As Mr John Wooden, the legendary US basketball player and coach, once said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.”

...Are willing to do whatever it takes

What would you do if you had to achieve your goals this month because somebody had a gun to your head? Your results would go through the roof. I’m (definitely) not suggesting you try this out, but the most successful people in the world are those who adopt this mindset. They identify important goals and commit to doing whatever it takes to achieve them.

...Are addicted to learning

Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook who, according to Forbes, is worth a cool $33bn right now, is currently learning Mandarin – one of the hardest languages on the planet. The moment you stop improving yourself, you do just that: you stop, and get overtaken. The best leaders are always learning, listening and reflecting.

...Have a vision

If a leader isn’t clear on their vision, where exactly are they leading their people? Great leaders need to be forward-looking and will usually have strong and clear opinions on future trends facing their industry, and where their visions for their teams and organisations sit within those trends.

...Surround themselves with great talent

As a leader you’re only as good as the players on your team. The greatest leaders and greatest organisations on the planet focus on talent: spotting it, hiring it, keeping it, developing it and – if, God forbid, talent in their team or company should ever leave – staying in touch with it.

...Are always 100% themselves

Great leaders master the fine art of just being themselves. All of the CEOs I interviewed were engaging, natural, informal and real, and encouraged those around them to be the same. In an article for Forbes, top CEO coach Mr Mike Myatt wrote: “Average leaders are viewed as business executives; the best leaders are viewed as great human beings.”

...Create more leaders (not just followers)

Why has Mr John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, been so successful? This quote sums up the reason for his success: “We are growing ideas, but we are growing people as well. Where I might have had two potential successors, I now have 500.” Great leaders such as Mr Chambers develop other great leaders by helping their followers to learn and improve, and maximise their strengths.

...Are both optimists and realists

Great leaders are able to strike the perfect balance between optimism and realism. To get people to follow your lead, you need a positive attitude. But if the road is rough, great leaders don’t pretend or say it’s smooth. As leadership guru Mr John Maxwell once said, “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

Ten things a leader would never say

Illustrations by Mr Giordano Poloni