Leadership exposed

Too often commentary about leadership focuses only on the visible characteristics, and stops there. In this piece, I want to share not only what I believe leadership looks like, but also what makes up its DNA.

The visible characteristics that are often espoused seem to encourage a checklist mentality to appraise leadership. A deeper examination hardly ever seems to occur. The visible leadership characteristics from my own experience, comprise the following:

Before moving away from this list, I would like to discuss two significant failures that often go unnoticed when assessing the strength of an organisation, the first is the wholesale outsourcing of the people side of leadership.

Lilian Gilbreth, the pioneering American psychologist and engineer and who has been referred to as the first lady of engineering and mother of modern management, made the connection between the psychological as well as the physiological needs of our people. Great leaders instinctively understand this and interact with their people and teams accordingly.

Unfortunately due to the drive to optimise workflows, the rigour of quality systems and the avalanche of procedures and policies that follow, organisations tend to end up with a formulaic approach for dealing with their so called “most important asset” by shifting responsibility to the company's HR function.

This wholesale delegation represents a major and frequent failure.

The second significant failure is the lack of a real and meaningful strategic business plan. The famous New York Yankee player and coach Yogi Berra once said, in his well-known form of English expression (and in a distinctive Italo-Brooklyn accent, no doubt) “You’ve got to be careful if you don't know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

Yogi was not only a great sportsman and personality, but he understood life and people and was able to cut to the chase with surgical precision.

A true leader can develop a plan, articulate the vision, gain stakeholder by in and support and importantly develop a set of incisive measurements that can track progress against the plan and at the same time link team performance to it.

So what is the DNA of leadership?

My construct of the intrinsic human qualities that make up a leader is based on my own experiences (yes and making mistakes), observations and study over some 30 years.

The intrinsic human qualities that I have determined to be the difference between success and failure as a leader are our virtues.

These are positive traits that are deemed to be morally good and consequently valued as they promote collective and individual greatness.

The word virtue actually comes from the Latin word “virtus” and it was a word used in ancient civilisation to express high ethical ideals.

In the early 90’s three Canadian thought leaders, formed what they called “The Virtues Project” to promote their contention that across all cultures and belief systems, there exists a common theme that represents these high ethical ideals.

The graphic that follows is my construct of the high ethical ideals, or virtues that in my opinion is the DNA of a true leader:

The practice of engaging consultants to hold workshops to come up with values statements and charters, often misses the point that corporate values should tie in with individual human virtues and not be an aspirational corporate pitch, that at times borders on being patronising.

Approaches such as this do not attach any credence to people (who have presumably undergone pre-employment processes), as having any inherent virtues.

True leaders know this well, and work continuously on self-improvement and bringing out the best in others.

Dario Amara is the Managing Director of Draco, a specialist construction project management company based in Perth, Western Australia.


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