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What makes a great leader?

21 June, 2017

What is leadership? What is it that great leaders do that others don’t? How do I become one?

It was 2001 and I was a young officer in the Army posted to Townsville, in charge of about 30 soldiers. I was starting to formulate my views on leadership and I was looking for answers to these questions. As it happened in that year I was posted to a unit with about 20 other young officers. Now this was a particularly talented group as about 12 ended up being selected to serve in Special Forces. This was unusual as you would typically only see one or two per Unit. To have 12 was very rare. Now even as talented as this group was, there were two guys who I thought stood out from the rest. The first was a guy called Mick and the second was a guy called Steve. Both these guys were exceptional at their jobs and clearly brilliant leaders. But the interesting thing is they were both very different.

Now Mick was (and still is) one of the most professionally competent people I have ever met. When it came to having the knowledge and skills for any job he was always streets ahead of anyone else. Now you may think that the tactics involved in leading a platoon of men wouldn’t be that technical, but they are. And Mick was years ahead of anyone else when it came to thinking about what future conflicts might look like and how we should be training our soldiers to prepare. He was brilliant. Now it was obvious that Mick was a very strong leader and his soldiers trusted him completely. If you were going into battle you wanted to be in Mick’s team because you knew your chances of survival were highest under him.

Now Steve was equally trusted, but for different reasons. Although Steve was very good at his job, Steve’s real strength was that his soldiers knew he had their best interests at heart and would go out of his way to make sure they were ok. And like Mick, Steve’s soldiers trusted him absolutely. If you had to fight your way out of hell you wanted to be with Steve because you knew he would look after you. Now it was obvious to me that trust was the fundamental component that both these guys had that allowed them to be such great leaders. But the trust came in different forms. For Mick it was Professional Trust, having the knowledge, skills, and experience to do the job. It included the ability to get and sustain results. For Steve it was Personal Trust, having your people’s best interests at heart. It includes elements like warmth, empathy, and care for others. It is important to recognise it does not need to include likeability. It is leadership not likership. Aim for respect instead.

Now although I recognised there were two types of trust, I struggled how to use this. Years later I made a decision to study a Masters of Business Administration. While I was there I was introduced a magical thing called a two by two. When I saw this it all made sense to me. If I put Personal Trust on the Y axis and Professional Trust on the X axis what you get is something really powerful. To be an effective leader you must be in the top right hand box i.e. have both Personal and Professional Trust. Now it is important at this point to say that both Steve and Mick were in the top right hand box, it just so happened that Steve and Mick were disproportionately strong in Personal and Professional Trust respectively.

So that made sense, to be a leader you needed to have both Personal and Professional Trust. If you have Professional Trust but are low on Personal Trust you are in the bottom right hand box, what I like to call a manager. A manager is someone who is good at the technical aspects of their job but you know they don’t have your best interests at heart. They are all about the work but don’ t care about the people. If you have Personal Trust but are low on Professional Trust you are in the top left hand box, what I like to call a ‘Mate’. A ‘mate’ is someone who looks after their people but is not able to deliver results. If you don’t have Personal or Professional Trust then you are in the bottom left hand box. I have deliberately not labelled it because I don’t want to give people a bumper sticker. But these leaders are not trustworthy at all. So now this was tremendously helpful because I could plot people on the 2 x 2 and work out if the issues I was having with someone was a Personal Trust or Professional Trust issue.

Once I knew this it helped me have a meaningful conversation with someone about leadership but also to zone in on what element needed work. In essence this clarified for me what leadership is all about.

Leadership is all about Trust. But Trust comes in two forms: Personal and Professional. And to be an effective leader you need to have both. Like Steve leave your people in no doubt you have their best interests at heart, and like Mick, be brilliant at the knowledge and skills of your job and demonstrate the ability to get results. But make sure you do both.

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