What makes a great leader?
It’s one of the perennial questions in business and there’s no shortage of research on the topic. Often, the best clues as to what great leadership looks like come from those practicing it day-in, day-out.
Holly Ransom has spent a decade interviewing some of the most prominent leaders around the world and distilled their lessons in her new book, The Leading Edge, which also includes lessons learnt from founding and running her own business, Emergent.
Ransom’s book is divided into three sections: mindset, method and mastery. Here are six pearls of wisdom for all leaders.
1. Own your own story
A critical part of effective leadership is being able to ‘own your own narrative’, writes Ransom. But it is not an easy thing to do.
“One of the hardest parts of claiming our own story is our fear of letting other people down. We perform a version of ourselves that stands up to social constructs, that smiles and nods rather than speaking out when we have a different viewpoint, that pursues a degree or job because our parents or significant other thinks we should, that bends over backwards to put the needs of others first. But every time we let someone down in the name of owning our personal narrative, there will be another we lift up — someone who sees us more clearly as a person they can relate to.”
2. On stress and resilience
“In life and in leadership, we can guarantee we’re going to face multiple kinds of stressors. I believe resilience lies not in the first layer of stress — being time poor, resource poor or dealing with a difficult circumstance — but in how we decide to own that narrative and frame our choices … I’ve come to think of resilience as the springboard for bounce. It is a flexible reaction that enables us to move with the ups and downs of life, but always aim higher — and the stronger our springboard, or our sense of resilience, the greater the heights we’ll be able to reach. The strength and flex of our springboard (resilience) is determined by the stories we tell ourselves”.
3. Child’s play
Children are naturally curious, experimental and willing to ask for help, but as we get older and stop playing, Ransom says we lose that “curiosity, humour, perspective and the ability to question”, which has serious implications for creativity and innovation.
“What if, instead of thinking ‘my work’s too urgent to have time to play’, I suggest to you that your work is too important to not have time to play? Play is, in fact, serious business. If unleashing our inner child has a serious return on investment attached to it, how do we reconnect with that child? Curiosity is a disposition, not a destination. New world leaders must start to cultivate it as a prerequisite skill”.
4. On misguided efforts to manage our time, not our energy
“Somewhere along the way, we stopped responding to people’s inquiries about how we were feeling with a description of our mood and instead chose to describe the state of our calendar. We started wearing busyness as a badge of honour, and then a shield of excuses for why we can’t try something new or spend time doing things we love. I’ve been there, done that, believe me. But none of us wants to be that ‘busy’ person. Not for your family, not for your colleagues and not for yourself.”
5. Step outside your comfort zone
Ransom once spent an entire year doing something she was afraid of every day. It was a challenge she embarked on with one of her closest friends and it taught her key lessons about the meaning of fear.
“The single most important habit you can build today is to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Why? Because change is the only constant, and the velocity isn’t slowing down. Ambiguity, uncertainty, transformation and disruption are not temporary phenomena; they are the operating environment for our generation of leaders. These are the match conditions we need to be preparing and developing strategies to deal with. While our comfort zone skills and capabilities are everything that has gotten us to where we are today, they won’t get us to where we want to go tomorrow, if we’re leading from the edge.”
6. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel
Ransom has also developed a practice of inviting people she admires and wants to learn from out for coffee. The idea was inspired by a leadership program she completed where the focus was: “Don’t create mediocrity, copy genius”.
“There are natural laws of human behaviour that govern decision-making, motivation, and results. Successful people, companies and communities leave a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow. Why not discover what these natural laws of success reveal and apply them, instead of trying to make it all up as you go?”