Rethinking leadership

Rethinking leadership

WORDS Dr Belinda Mawhinney | IMAGE Five Hours West

When you hear the word leader, who do you imagine? A CEO or entrepreneur? Big business or a sole trader? Can you be a leader if you operate a small retail store in a rural town? I emphatically say yes. And here is why.

Challenge the misperception
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a leader is defined as “a role conferred on the basis of personal characteristics, experience, or through tradition by virtue of the position a person occupies in a group”.

What about if there is no clearly defined group? If you are a micro-business owner, who exactly are you leading without a team? The Oxford definition continues, “a leader generally takes a major role in making decisions, motivating the group, and effecting group actions”.

Maybe you haven’t thought of yourself as a leader before, but micro and small business owners absolutely fit the description. Major role in decision making – tick. Motivate the group (clients or customers) and encourage them to take action (to buy your product or service) – double tick.

Now we have challenged the traditional ideas of who is considered a leader, let’s consider what makes a leader.

Explore this concept through practical examples
Have you worked with a manager who is not a leader? They sit high on the organisation chart, but no-one is following.

I was recently coaching a client who has been a leader for several decades. After years of conflict, I have been engaged to work with the leadership team to perform. I asked what she thought was the biggest challenge for the group and she explained, “We don’t have a common purpose or direction. We don’t know where we are going, so we don’t know how to get there. We need leadership, but not all managers are leaders”.

Get specific
Leaders need to draw on a range of personal characteristics and skills. A core skill for a contemporary leader is empathy. In study by Catalyst [Van Bommel, T. (2021). The power of empathy in times of crisis and beyond. Catalyst], empathy was found to be the most critical skill of an effective leaders. The study defined empathy as “the skill of connecting with others to identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives, and emotions; and demonstrating that understanding with intention, care and concern”. Both the skill and demonstrated behaviour are needed to be an empathetic leader.

The importance of how leaders relate to others is unprecedented. Leaders require a combination of skills, personal attributes but they also need to define a common purpose. For leaders to mobilise collective action, the purpose needs to be clear.

Leadership styles; the need to rethink
When I started my professional career 25 years ago, there was a limited range of leadership styles. The most common leadership style then was autocratic leaders who use command and control to manage people; “You do this, because I said so”.

This approach is no longer considered a viable way to lead people. The landscape of work has changed significantly and the opportunity is here to think about the way you work and consider if there is another, better, sustainable way to lead. Rethinking leadership is an important step in improving how businesses operate and how to effectively bring people with us to achieve a common purpose.

How to re-think your approach to leadership
1. Know your strengths and identify gaps in your skills. Be willing to learn and build your leadership capacity.
2. Set and hold boundaries. Leaders need to draw on interpersonal skills, but there needs to be a limit on what you can do.
3. Be clear on your purpose, why it is important and how you are going to get there.

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