Business Eye: Real leaders act... they don’t just think about it

Alex Pratt
Alex Pratt

It was Shakespeare’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night who told us not to be afraid of greatness and that “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”.

No matter the road taken to greatness it has always depended upon character, starting with a deep need to be enterprising.

An enterprising person has a strong propensity to do the desirable but unnecessary thing.

They act.

They don’t just think about acting. These guys will pick others’ rubbish up on the street, will rush to your aid if in trouble, and will see an opportunity or threat and do something about it rather than waste energy worrying.

We are all enterprising from time to time, but to become great you need to live there 24/7.

The other necessary key trait that we all also exhibit on occasion is leadership.

At different moments we will react, follow, or observe others but sometimes we will take the lead.

The Great have to be strong leaders but know when to observe and follow, and sense the difference between management and leadership.

Some not wired for leadership and who may be good managers still find their way into important leadership roles, but by occupying these seats, despite sometimes working very hard, they can badly damage the progress and prospects of so many others. When managers fill the shoes of leaders, the opportunity costs are immeasurable.

It is a phenomenon we often see in politics because to get elected you need to be more popular than the competition, not necessarily more capable. Popularity is more about managing perceptions than it is about proving strong leadership capabilities under pressure.

These days, fewer and fewer of those standing for national election seem to have held or led anything in the real world.

It is perhaps why Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband and politics as a whole are losing our respect.

Telling us what they think we want to hear is no substitute for what we need to understand.

A manager tends to focus on what we say we want, on being reasonable and efficient, and on keeping the maximum number of people happy.

They are about organising the status quo.

A leader will take others faster to where they don’t yet realise they need to go by asking the right tough questions, offering hope beyond the banal, and absorbing the inevitable objections and brickbats without losing momentum. They are about changing the status quo.