I have been fortunate enough to be led and coached by some highly inspirational leaders during 30 years in both the Army and business. The harsh conditions I experienced during two tough, raw decades as an Army officer focused me on the qualities that get the best results from those I lead. Certainly, I have made some questionable leadership decisions and I have seen far too many ineffective leaders and overcontrolling managers - but I believe the biggest factor in being able to survive and then thrive in unforgiving environments has been an ability to attract the most talented coaches.
The best coaches recognise that the climate of leadership is constantly changing and developing. The need for good leadership skills is greater than ever, driven by our ever more manic, stressful society and by cost-cutting that creates far flatter management structures. Global recession and the recent political turmoil have provided lessons about the future of leadership, and employees have been sending a clear message. It can be seen in the annual 'Best 100 Companies to Work For' list, for example. For those who are prepared to listen, their demand is for leaders and managers who have ethics, integrity, vitality, passion and trustworthiness. They want challenging, strong leaders who have the courage to use tough love to tackle toxic behaviour, 'organisational terrorists' and underperformance.
I believe two particular qualities will be needed by those aspiring to be top managers and leaders over the next 10 years. The first is wisdom. One of the fastest ways of acquiring wisdom is to listen to and learn from wise mentors. I have made a point throughout my career of seeking out, questioning and listening to powerful leaders. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former chief of the general staff, remains an inspiration to me. He led from the front as my commanding officer and knew how to decide between unpleasant factors when under intense pressure on operations.
While working with the US Army, I spent time with a retired general brought in to mentor younger leaders. His advice to me was: 'You don't have enough time to make all the mistakes that I have already made; let me point out where the bear traps are for you to avoid. I will ask you the toughest questions, so you take responsibility for your own decisions.' Such guidance is invaluable, but even - or especially - with such support, any aspiring leader has to be unafraid to make mistakes. I have learned from CEOs whom I have interviewed that a clear differentiator between excellent and average leaders is that the best ones have a rare 'humble excellence'. They are able to learn from their blunders and take action to make sure they don't happen twice.
Of course, it's all too easy to find yourself working for a manager who you believe lacks leadership wisdom. I have come across plenty of such situations. The key is to learn from them how not to repeat their errors, while seeking an early move. But, by being careful in picking the wise leaders you wish to work for, you can learn from their inspirational leadership behaviours.
As well as a wise mentor, select a leadership coach who will support, challenge and inspire you. They are the catalysts; you are fully accountable for developing your own wisdom and pausing to make time for strategic thinking to solve your problems. As part of my coaching support, I also use LinkedIn to connect senior leaders from different business sectors, so that they can learn from each other's wisdom. A good leadership coach provides clarity and focus, helping you to select the least worst option. Your learning and acquisition of wisdom is optional, but I believe that if you want to be a top leader, it is an essential requirement.
In my opinion, the other vital quality that managers and leaders will need in order to be successful in the next 10 years is the ability to lead a life on purpose. It's something that I have found unites the most successful leaders, whatever sector they may operate in. I have learned only through trial and error the importance of doing the work I love and loving the work that I do; anything less is a sad compromise. Aspiring leaders need to ask themselves the big questions that won't go away: 'What is my life purpose and what will be my legacy? What and who am I here to serve? What are my unique gifts and talents and how can I best employ them?'
Numerous methods can help to identify these fundamental leadership building blocks, whether it's through your own reflection, 360-degree feedback or self-awareness psychometrics with a leadership coach. I have found this is where the big breakthroughs most often happen in leadership coaching. One senior leader who I was recently coaching hadn't stopped his manic, headlong dash through life to focus on his purpose. When challenged, he - rather lamely - offered that it was 'to pay off my mortgage'. Surely there is more to life than that? When you have honed and clarified your life purpose, then live it fully and authentically. Not only will you be more happy and fulfilled as a person, but as a leader you will also attract the best talent. Ultimately, this can only mean more success for you and your organisation.
Jonathan Perks MBE is a CEO and board-level leadership coach at Penna plc. He has coached top international leaders and teams at companies including HSBC, KPMG, Asda, Cambridge University, PwC, Barclays, Rio Tinto, McDonald's, RBS, Eversheds, Macquarie Bank, DWP, Scottish Power, DoH, Northern Foods, Pearl and IBM.