Suppose someone asked you to list the most important qualities you would find in an outstanding leader. What would you say? Toughness? Authority? Decisiveness, perhaps? Tenacity? You could make a case for all of these. Today’s conventional thinking about leadership tends to stress the more active, resolute qualities in a leader. Leaders are expected to get results and remain effective under the constant pressure of globalized markets.
What I want to suggest to you is a little different. The qualities of the strong, Hollywood-style leader may make for good newspaper copy, but they aren’t the ones that will create the kind of leader we really need today. They are too superficial, too much the product of stereotypes. They over-emphasize action and underplay the need for leaders who can go beyond setting a direction to coax the best from everyone around them. For that you need three far less glamorous qualities: restraint, generosity, and mercy.
Lack of restraint is a common failing of nearly all tough, macho leaders. They cannot stop themselves from taking charge. They cannot hold themselves back from making decisions where none are needed, or where any choice will be premature. They interfere constantly with other people’s jobs, micromanaging and over-supervising in their constant need to be doing something—anything—to stay active and involved. When people say a leader like this is “on top of things,” they are more truthful than they realize. She is constantly imposing herself from above where she is not needed.
Leaders need restraint for two reasons: to hold back from rushing into decisions or action when time is needed to wait for the situation to clarify; and to keep from doing things, or making choices, that are the responsibility of their subordinates. Much of the reason why executives today are so over-burdened with work is an inability to delegate. They are so convinced that they must stay on top of everything that they demand to be involved in every decision of any magnitude. The results are simple: Decisions are delayed because the people in charge are overwhelmed; choices are made by those least able to see what is needed, because they are usually furthest from the action; and subordinates’ jobs are reduced to carrying out instructions sent down from on high. Add to all this that many decisions are made that were never needed, and which perhaps made matters worse, and you have the causes of much of today’s high-pressure work environment: Self-inflicted wounds.
Generosity used to be the defining quality of kings and great lords. The word even began by meaning “noble” or “of high birth.” Kings and princes were expected to be generous with gifts, favors, and attention. It was how they held sway over quarrelsome petty nobles without constant fighting. A mean-minded king quickly faced rebellion, or found his nobles transferring their allegiance to a more generous neighbor.
Today’s organizations are much like medieval kingdoms. There are the same petty lordlings, each with his or her own group of followers; the same turf wars and quarrels about influence and status; the same need for each person in charge to be able to rely on the loyalty of followers who have their own concerns about making a living; and the same need for those at the top to practice generosity as a means of holding everything together.
I don’t simply mean generosity in giving material rewards—though many top executives could benefit from remembering that nobles of the past who enriched themselves at the expense of their followers usually ended up as victims of some palace rebellion. Today’s leaders need especially to be generous with their time, their attention, their recognition of good work, their listening, and their help for everyone around them. The leader’s role is to serve her followers by making sure they have the resources and know-how they need to achieve the objectives laid before them. You cannot do that by sitting in your remote castle on the executive floor, counting your stock options.
We all need mercy so often. We need to be forgiven for our mistakes and blemishes; to be given a second chance to get things right; to be saved from the consequences of our own, foolish actions. Mercy has always been seen as a quality of greatness. Ordinary leaders huff and puff and delight in exercising power. Poor leaders go further, seeking to bolster their insecurity by appearing ruthless and punishing every fault. Only great leaders realize that to be merciful is the only true proof of holding authority. And that forgiving people’s honest mistakes and helping them do better next time not only builds a stronger group, but cements their loyalty. Tough, unbending leaders inspire fear. Merciful leaders inspire love. Which is better for motivating people to give their all, even when you are not there to watch them?
Restraint, generosity, and mercy: Managers who possess all three have the raw material to become truly great leaders. Of course, leaders still need know-how, experience, and some technical skills, but these are rarely in short supply. It is the inner aspect of great leadership that is misunderstood—and rare enough to be worth more than any pile of stock options. The sooner shareholders come to realize that, the sooner we will have organizations everyone can be proud of.
- Practicing Generosity
- Practicing Restraint
- Leaving a Wake Behind
- Building Trust
- Thoughtful Words about Leadership
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership. He also posts at The Coyote Within.