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Published date: March 29, 2017
Last modified: March 29, 2017

There are leaders, and then there are those who lead


Martin Rafe, Leadership and Talent Development Director, Join the Dots, discusses leadership – skills, traits and attributes.


I read week on week the various assessments of ‘how to be a good leader’ and all about the ‘successful leadership traits’ many of which we see on a repetitive basis, so without reading any manual or text book or with no real angle, I sat down and based on my own personal experience (which I may add has been both mixed in terms of success and blessed with variety also!) I’ve put together my own 10 skills, traits even attributes of how to be a successful leader (and probably manager also)


  • Awareness of your own personal impact

It took me nearly ten years (yes really) to figure this one out. My first managerial/leadership role at Nat West presented me with a team made up of many different ‘profiles’ of people, some more experienced, some less driving, some more career minded etc. I thought that one size would fit all in my naive world. Guess what, well simply it did not. I really did think that I could get people to do things for me because I was the ‘boss’ and that they would just jump to my call.

The key here is in Dwight. D. Eisenhower’s’ words that ‘Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it’, and because they want to do it, not because you want them to. In other words whether you are there or not it’s business as usual. Your own personal impact has to be one of a motivator, a creator of positive thinking, and one of consistency. People trust consistency (there is of course the likeability factor also).


  • Proactivity

What exactly do I mean? Well again I have been led by plenty of leaders with a laissez-faire approach, a leader who was happy to let things just run without playing an active role, but then initiated a blame culture when things went wrong.

Now in terms of active I’m not talking about interference or micro managing, but simply supporting people to get results and to perform. This of course will mean different things to different people, but in essence it’s having a leader who makes things happen and who importantly has a control over what’s happening, who is doing what, and with a target in mind, again consistently.


  • Visibility

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard teams say ‘he’s/ she’s never around’. What do they mean? Well I think that people need and want to be led. There are several studies to evidence this. Teams and individuals want to see their leader as part of the team and also as part of the unit. I was in a role once where I was in back to back meetings, week on week. Now not only did that give me a time management and indeed a ‘getting things done’ challenge, but more importantly it meant that I was never with my own team for long enough to support, develop, and probably most importantly build relationships. Guess what, well the relationship house that I was building was based on very uncertain footings, and very soon became unsteady as people left, felt uncared for, and ultimately demotivated. This was my responsibility, which leads me into the need for a leader to take responsibility, accountability and authority (RAA).


  • Become people ‘savvy’ – understand people

One of my guiding principles this one. I have come across many leaders and managers who are technically gifted in their area of expertise. That’s great, but unless you can manage relationships, and build great communication processes there is only one way that you will go, and ultimately it’s down. Hard hitting I know, but true. Like it or not people are the reason that you will (or will not) be successful, so the key is to understand your people and to make them feel ’special’. The challenge here is that this has to be a day on day exercise so as to build trust and understanding, and yes its hard work, but hard work that comes with a win win.

During our workshops at join the Dots I regularly ask managers to describe the leader that they most want to be and also to describe the leader that they have previously worked for and would work for again tomorrow given the choice – YOU want to be that person who in next year’s workshop your team remembers as the one they’d work for again ‘anytime, anyplace’.


  • Humour

Someone asked me once if I was on some form of ‘drugs’ ( I think it was Prozac) because I was always so upbeat. What they really meant was that they liked being around me and that I was uplifting for them. Yes this can be irritating as well, but humour creates a positive environment that people will look forward to coming to, after all people ultimately come to work for and with you  (and others of course) and will leave for the same reasons. Culturally it’s vital to be able to have a laugh along the way.

I currently adopt a very colourful and positive approach to our team here. We laugh and smile a lot. Now I know that business is a serious issue, of course it is, but in my experience you can lead people far more productively within an environment of positivity where people can be themselves than within a suppressed, and therefore negative atmosphere. Gods knows I have worked in several ‘daunting’ environments where I did not know what to say, when to say things or how to say things to my leader. Indeed I lived in fear: humour I think not! You do not want to be the leader that people remember in the future as the one I’d ‘never’ work for again!


  • Consistent and fair

This is about acting or doing things in the same way over time, with fairness and accuracy, but every day (yes it’s hard work!). Become known for this. Individuals and teams whilst they might not like it will value consistent and fair. It’s a bit like consistency and trust – they go together.

Many decisions that you make will not be universally embraced, why should they be, being a leader is not a popularity contest, but it is about doing the right things at the right time,  in the right way. I have worked for and with several leaders who clearly had favourites, or who only wanted things their way, or actually couldn’t listen, (not didn’t, they couldn’t). So as time progressed what happened? well ideas from the team became less, communication with the team became less, relationships dwindled away, and hey presto results slipped away.


  • Make time for people

One of the skills of a great leader is to appear (regardless of what’s happening) to have time for people, but of course that does not mean that you actually have got time, but you appear in control. The trick here is to never say no, but to either help there and then (if you can) or to put aside time that will be convenient for all. Many leaders that I have worked for have repeatedly seemed like they were running around, stressed, uptight and mirroring their own challenges onto me. That’s ok to a point, but when I wanted something they were never available or gave me the time that I needed, especially in terms of coaching me. There is nothing worse than not coaching the team or worse cancelling appointments made especially appraisal meetings for example.

You will NEVER motivate people if you cancel their appraisal meeting. I waited all day once to have my performance appraisal at Marks and Spencer. It was cancelled every hour throughout the day. I waited until 5.30pm, then received a call from my line manager who asked if we could do my appraisal in 10 minutes. I thought he meant start in 10 minutes, but he meant do it, and complete it all in 10 minutes!! – I left Marks and Spencer shortly afterwards!


  • Walk the talk

Many of the leaders that I have worked for have simply been full of ‘BS’. They managed to pontificate, procrastinate, talk corporate jargon all day long, and in essence detach themselves from the team, indeed the real world of normal plain English language. Now I realise that there is such a thing as corporate etiquette, and we all try and say the right thing in the right places to the right person, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be putting on an act day after day. People like ‘real’ leaders, i.e. the ones that they can count on, the ones that say what they’ll do, and do what they say, and the ones that make things happen. Communication is key. Make it mean something to me, and don’t be a walking CIPD text book.


  • Team Meetings

So often the Cinderella to the business needs.

I was working within a major housing association recently and asked the question about frequency of team meetings to be met by a series of bewildered and blank faces. The response was muted at best as the managers stated that they had not got time for team meetings. Or hadn’t had a team meeting for months. Unbelievable! – can you afford not to have the time, well no you can’t, and here’s why

  • They’re great for building supportive relationships
  • They’re vital for learning about our colleagues’ motivations, fears, hopes, troubles, etc. So much communication is non-verbal, and face-time is the only way you can read it
  • Team meetings provide us with the opportunity to share information we wouldn’t be so comfortable sharing by email, or in a report
  • A team meeting is a level playing field and an open forum – everybody present shares the same opportunity to communicate and listen
  • They play a vital role in leadership – the team leader can rally the troops and remind attendees of the mission
  • Nothing can replace the closeness, security and intimacy of a team meeting, especially in times of crisis
  • Team meetings allows attendees to lift their head out of day-to-day operations
  • They create a space for giving each other feedback
  • Team meetings are a learning and improvement opportunity
  • They’re a great reminder, after all, that we are in fact in a team – and not alone!


  • Learn from your mistakes

This is a fundamental point. No leader, or successful person has always been right, or indeed got it right. The dragons den is full of successful business leaders who have in their time led failed businesses, and even the great sporting managers have led teams that have not achieved as they would have wanted. But the key is this, that they took stock, built knowledge from mistakes, and decisions that did not produce results and in essence tried again. You see it’s not that we get knocked down, it’s whether or not we can get back up, (and how long it takes us) that matters. You need to develop resilience, i.e. the ability to look yourself in the mirror and remember what got you where you are in the first place. There are of course several techniques here. The old NLP techniques called ring of fire works well, where you take off the imaginary ring of fire and put in on the floor and step into it. This is the ring of success and it takes you back to where you were at a time when you were completely and utterly self-satisfied and successful – try it.


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