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What makes a great leader?

By Tracy Clarke, Europe and Americas CEO at Standard Chartered Bank

The gap between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ leadership is closing

Until the late 20th century, leadership roles were mostly held by men. As women gradually took on leadership positions, their role models were also male, reinforcing traditional male leadership characteristics. 

Today, men and women are learning from each other, and are aspiring to emulate qualities that would previously have been considered male or female. This will ultimately lead to better leaders, and more diverse, balanced leadership teams, essential both for the current and future crises, as well as business as usual.

One of the things that I have reflected on during the COVID-19 is what makes a good leader. Some leadership traits are essential: leaders need to be resilient, results-oriented, bold and aspirational, whether running a country or a company. But the crisis has accentuated the difference between good and great leaders. 

Based on the actions and behaviours of leaders around the world, and my own experiences, I would highlight three key characteristics that differentiate great leaders, particularly during a crisis:

1. Clarity

People need clarity to the greatest extent possible, both in what is communicated and how. While in general we exist in a stage of ambiguity and are relatively comfortable with that, the consequences of ambiguity are heightened during a crisis. In a business context, employees want to understand how their role will be affected, what is expected of them, and how this may change today or in future.

Trying to give clarity about the future is particularly difficult, but during my career, I have found that saying ‘I don’t know that yet’ is better than giving woolly or superficial assurances.

2. Compassion or care

A crisis – particularly a public health crisis – impacts everyone, but the personal experience and anxieties will differ for each person. Good leaders try to put themselves into other people’s shoes and show genuine care and understanding. This is one I try to emulate with my colleagues. After all, we care about our friends and families, so we should extend this care and compassion into a business context.

3. Hope

Leaders need to give people belief and hope in the future. During a crisis in particular, it can be difficult to look beyond the here and now, but creating a vision of the future that people can connect with, and exploring how we might create that future together, is essential for morale and creates momentum coming through and beyond a crisis.

Overall, authenticity is essential, which requires courage and emotional intelligence. There are some leaders that have stood out in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jacinda Adern, prime minister of New Zealand, for example, has dealt with crisis after crisis during her premiership, whilst also running a country and starting a family. 

When she was elected, her appointment was received with some cynicism. Today, she has become a role model for aspiring leaders, as well as a figurehead for New Zealanders, proving highly visible, compassionate, resilient and resourceful during the most pressing of circumstances.

The value of role models

While books and training courses can describe characteristics of a good leader, there is no substitute for learning from people you admire and respect. In the early stages of their careers, people learn what traits they do – or do not – want to emulate from their immediate line managers. This is an important consideration when deciding who to place in management roles and developing a business culture.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was very fortunate to work with former CEO and chair of Standard Chartered, Mervyn Davies, who had been my mentor during my MBA. One of the interesting characteristics of Mervyn Davies’ leadership was that some of his key strengths were traditionally ‘feminine’ traits, and in that respect, he was certainly ahead of his time. 

In 2015, the United States’ Center for Gender in Organizations published research that explored the transition of leadership traits between men and women. For example, traditional ‘male’ characteristics of discipline, self-esteem, rationality, decisiveness and self-reliance are now just as likely to be demonstrated by women as well as men. Likewise, ‘female’ traits of loyalty and sensitivity are now shared by both genders. 

One interesting aspect of this research was that previously male characteristics of consistency and dependability are now more common amongst women than men; conversely, emotional expression is now more likely amongst men than women.

The fluidity of different leadership characteristics – and the move away from gender-defined conventions – is a positive development for the current generation, but particularly the next generation of leaders. Rather than modelling leadership traits that they believe are expected of them, they can look at today’s successful leaders, male or female, and aspire to emulate the characteristics that they admire.

This is, however, a huge responsibility for today’s leaders. No-one excels in every attribute. Likewise, some characteristics will be more important than others at different times. Consequently, the more diverse our leadership teams, not only by gender, race and sexuality, but also in the range of skills and talents that they offer, the more role models with whom the next generation of leaders can identify. 

This helps to foster a more inclusive culture, enhances succession planning and opens up a richer set of experiences and talents on which to draw, during both crisis and business as usual.

While all leaders need to be results-oriented and resilient, the pandemic has emphasised that the way individuals achieve these results matters, including authenticity, compassion, relationships, communication and collaboration. During the COVID crisis, we have seen the most effective leaders on the world stage, and within individual organisations, dial up these strengths, informing the aspirations and qualities of the leaders of tomorrow.

Tracy Clarke is Europe and Americas CEO at Standard Chartered.

Article published on Management Today 6 November 2020.