Fast Company magazine, known for its creative insights on the future of business, recently asked 64,000 people across 13 countries to identify the qualities they want in their leaders. When I heard about this research, I was interested to hear what it had to say. That was until I thought hard about what the study was asking for.
Surely asking employees what they want in a leader is a little like relying exclusively on patient feedback to determine what a doctor should do to help the sick get better. All it can accurately address is the hygiene factors, which, of course, do matter but will not cure the patient's illness.
So here is what these 64,000 employees had to say: they want leaders who are slightly less polarising and who are more collaborative. While there is nothing wrong with this, by itself it definitely will not make a leader great any more than telling a doctor to see his patients on time and be a bit nicer will make him better in his speciality.
As intriguing as this research is, it does not cut into the practice of leading or address what great leaders do. This is what is missing when asking the led how to lead. They look from their point of view, not with the same perspective that the organisation does, not with an appreciation of leadership success. After all, their reference point is confined by past experience or by their imagination.
As an expert on leadership, I would like to chime in the same way I would hope a professor of medicine would when interpreting patient feedback. The question we should pose is: "What do great, high-performing leaders actually do?"
You can accomplish this by conducting an A-B Study. This is when you separate two population groups to see what the study group does compared with the control group. For example, identify your top performing leaders and compare them to a representative sample of your other leaders.
When selecting top performing leaders, be sure to select leaders who excel at leading results instead of those who are personally delivering results. It is easy to rate people who are in leadership roles yet delivering great results personally as being successful leaders. Their success is not leadership success. It is success as an individual contributor, who happens to occupy a leadership position. They are a Lino - leader in name only. Actually they may be and probably are a rubbish leader, just good at doing the work that gets the results.
So what is it that great leaders do? First of all they operate at the appropriate leadership level. Not all leaders are created equally, and not all leadership positions are designed to achieve the same goals. Do you expect a front-line manager and chief executive to do the same thing? Obviously not. The first act of great leaders is to fulfil their leadership level. These are commonly defined as managing others, leading managers, business leadership and executive leaders.
Now to the crux of great leadership - and I am not sure why the researched employees did not ask for this. Great leaders help their teams succeed collectively and individually. This should be written as the top priority in a leader's job description.
At the end of the day, if the team and team members do not succeed, neither will the leader. Knowing this, they begin each day asking themselves: "What can I do today to help my employees, team, even company succeed?"
In its purest sense, leadership is helping others achieve a goal - success.
Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center