Leadership is a fascinating topic, judging by the sheer volume of pieces you can read on the subject. It’s also worthy of deeper understanding and study, and attending business school will allow you to do just that.
As part of my application to Hult International Business School in 2012, I had to write an essay on what I considered to be the most important qualities of leadership. Now, as I reflect upon my two years of study and what I wrote, I have complete clarity on the most critical qualities and virtues of a good leader, because I’m aspiring to be the best leader I can be.
You can learn a lot about leadership in business school, but that shouldn’t end on graduation day. Educating tomorrow’s leaders requires providing them with opportunities for growth on the job, and that should be fundamental to any business. Companies must advocate for and promote developing talent within their organizations (which is really “corporate responsibility”). Sustainable business ideas can blossom from anywhere and anyone, at any time, which is why leadership—along with creativity and entrepreneurialism—is something senior leaders should encourage within their organizations.
Are leaders born?
The most important qualities of a successful leader have been subject to debate for centuries. A number of history’s greatest philosophical writers, from Plato to Plutarch, have probed the qualities of a leader, versus one who is not. The debates have frequently focused around the age-old theories of nature versus nurture.
The Elephant Theory
I take a balanced view of leadership: the most important leadership qualities are inherited and learned, and there is no substitute for experience. A 2011 study on my favorite animal, the African elephant, looked at the value of older elephants and, based on previous studies, makes like-for-like comparisons with humans. “Prior research on humans has found that ‘reasoning about social conflicts improves with age despite declines in many forms of cognitive processing’.” And while societies throughout time have exalted youth culture, “‘older individuals often emerge as leaders in tasks requiring specialized knowledge.’”
I would not make the mistake of confusing age with experience, or youth with a lack of it, but it is reasonable to conclude that specialized, in-depth knowledge comes with age and experience. While this is important to bear in mind, it only relates to one specific leadership quality: experience-led intuition.
Are good leaders always in charge?
It is often assumed that the head of a group, organization, or country, is a leader. The dictionary defines one as “a person followed by others,” but that alone does not make a good leader. Contrary to the Elephant Theory, leaders can be found anywhere.
A fundamental starting point of good leadership is having an astute understanding of human nature, such as peoples’ needs, emotions, and motivations, all of which help a leader connect and engage with people, and therefore more successful outcomes. But a leader also needs a vision, and a well-known proverb sums this up: “When there is no vision, the people perish.” But it’s still not enough to have a vision—a leader must also have the aptitude to deliver one to employees. In fact, the latter determines how successful a leader will be, which is why it’s important to understand that just like there are different people, there are also different styles of leadership.
How not to lead
In my experiences throughout my educational career, within the business environment, and playing on sports teams, I have witnessed destructive managers and so-called leaders who stifle talent and creativity within their teams and organizations due to fears that their own position and/or performance will be undermined. But this only shows a lack of leadership, and demonstrates a reckless approach to change. My observations of bad leadership have led me to recognize the three most critical qualities of a successful leader I haven’t mentioned yet: integrity, authenticity and professionalism.
Change is an inevitable consequence of life and must be understood as pivotal to the evolution, success and longevity of any business. As a species, embracing change has been central to our own evolution and the development of the modern day world in which we live. Understanding and embracing change is thus a critical quality for any successful leader.
Those who make good leaders
Your education is never complete. Every day brings a new situation, a new challenge and an opportunity to learn. Great leaders understand that they are “works in progress,” even if they already possess a number of qualities that provide a solid foundation for being successful. Great leaders know that their actions should motivate people to do more and become more.
This is why leadership qualities are strengthened by attending business school. You get an abundance of opportunities to increase your self-confidence, self-awareness, sharpen critical managerial and influencing qualities, and you also receive exposure to people with diverse expertise in a broad, international network of business professionals. When you begin to believe you can be a successful leader, and begin to nurture the qualities that make one so, you are on your way.
Alan Newton is a Hult Global Ambassador, and a 2014 Executive MBA graduate of Hult International Business School in London. He has spent the last 15 years in senior operational, commercial, supply chain & procurement roles within leading EMEA event agencies. Since graduation he has followed his entrepreneurial spirit and established a consultancy network, NewtonSquared, and co-founded Eventopedia, both of which serve the global events community.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Brault on Unsplash.com.
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