What makes a good leader?

MT EXPERT: We all know that good leaders are vitally important, but what makes a good one, and how do you spot the candidates who will really be up to the task? Egon Zehnder's Jill Ader passes on a few tips.

by Jill Ader
Last Updated: 15 Sep 2014

It may be a truism that the pace of change grows ever faster, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it is a massive challenge for organisations. When it comes to developing talent, many are struggling to understand how their world is changing, and consequently what skills their leaders will need in the medium or longer term.

Many of our retail clients, for example, say they need people who can help to address potentially-transformational questions like whether they have too many stores in the wrong places, and how to leverage the internet to have global reach. But planning for the long term is hard when things move so fast and customers can see everything online.

The "hero leader" is dead
It used to be that the CEO would take decisions and give answers – but this is increasingly unrealistic. The job now requires people who are skilled at drawing out ideas from others, helping to assimilate them, and then using these ideas to challenge the thinking across larger groups.
When it comes to developing the leaders of tomorrow, the focus should be as much on the organisation and teams as it is on individuals with leadership potential, because inspiring and engaging internal teams and stakeholders is now a cornerstone of effective leadership.
There may be one or two ‘hero leaders’ still left at the helm, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Emulating them will not create the leaders of the future.

Ethics and authenticity rule
Particularly since the financial and banking crisis, it’s clear that leaders need instinctively to appreciate the wider societal expectations which underpin their organisations’ licence to operate.
For instance, when we’re recruiting CEOs in financial services now, it’s crucial to evaluate the integrity and ethics of candidates. What ethical challenges have they faced in their careers and lives, and how have they handled them?

We also look very closely at their sense of purpose – and interview against that, and reference against that, to form a picture of their values and ethics. Insights from psychometric testing can also be informative. These techniques may be more commonly associated with non-board roles, but they are equally applicable to the C-suite.

So you want to be CEO?
Aspiring CEOs today should start by being honest with themselves about how much they want the top job. It really isn’t for everyone and will take over your life, even when things are going well.

Beyond this, intellectual curiosity - about themselves, their colleagues and their organisations - is one of the biggest things we look for. In my experience organisations often teach people how to give feedback but not how to take it, and yet this is a vital skill. Feedback is a source of growth, it can spur us on to develop ourselves.

And finally, always challenge your own thinking and encourage others to do the same. We call this looking for "dis-confirming evidence" and it’s uncomfortable, but nonetheless vital. Things now change so fast that successful leaders must look for what’s not already been seen.

Successful leaders also regard a new role as a new starting point for development, not the finishing line.  Even CEOs must now keep evolving to stay relevant – and that’s a tougher challenge than the ‘hero CEOs’ ever faced.

Jill Ader is a senior partner at Egon Zehnder, a leading global executive search and development advisory firm. www.egonzehnder.com

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