Leadership is not an exact science.

Whilst many authors describe the characteristics necessary of a leader as fairness, integrity and honesty, I can nominate people who did not have those qualities and yet had many followers. Adolf Hitler is one. John F. Kennedy?s affairs would hardly stand a reasonable test of integrity. Yet he was a leader of great substance.

Other authors nominate inspiration as a trait of true leadership. Claudius, Emperor of Rome from 41 to 54 A.D, was anything but inspiring. However, his reign was marked by some notable successes; the invasion of Britain, stability and good government in the provinces, and successful management of client kingdoms.

To my mind, man is too emotionally frail as a human being to consistently have all of the traits demanded of a leader according to the various versions of Traits Theory published.

What leaders do

What I do know is that leaders do similar things:


Leaders create both an idea and the environment for that idea to flourish. It is the creation of the idea and the sympathetic working environment together that sets them apart. Many people in positions of leadership create ideas. Many create consistent working environments. Only a few get both the idea and the environment working together.

For instance, setting out the idea to improve safety statistics such as lost time injury frequency ratio by 50% in two years without creating an environment where unsafe acts and unsafe conditions are seen as the number one enemy is a recipe for failure. An environment where people want to report unsafe acts and incidents and supervisors and managers are able to act on them promptly must be developed. The implications for budgetary processes, risk identification, analysis and treatment skills and influencing skills within the organisation are not trivial.

Not only do leaders create a sympathetic environment for the idea to flourish, they create the environment within appropriate boundaries, taking into account the resource constraints of the organisation. There is no point in attempting to create a sales team motivated by the prospect of open ended earnings as a proportion of their sales results when the sales labour budget is fixed as a number rather than as a percentage of sales.


Leaders articulate their ideas in a way that is understood by their subordinates.

They articulate at a minimum, the idea(s), the goal of the idea(s), the steps towards the goal and the style of organisation that is needed to achieve the goal.

Some are in a fortunate position where their control comes from personal power and their articulation comes by way of a clear order. Others need to use more tools to get their message across.

Leaders use the tools of facts, emotion and symbols in somewhere near equal measure to achieve the desired purpose of communication. That is, to have subordinates:

  1. Understand;
  2. Agree;
  3. Care and;
  4. Act accordingly


Leaders sort fact from opinion and speculation from interpolation of known facts when they communicate. This helps them appear to be consistent which helps them appear to have integrity.

Leaders often articulate the case of the consequences of doing nothing to help set an environment for change.

Leaders articulate as much as they can in person.


Leaders demonstrate the style of organisation they want. This may or may not include a declaration of the organisation?s values.

If leaders want their people to work long hours, then they need to lead the way. The converse is also true.

If leaders want a ?safety first? culture they train themselves to become aware of unsafe acts and unsafe conditions.

If leaders want a high accountability environment they had better learn to say, “I was wrong” as if they meant it. They also must learn to hold everyone accountable without deference to personal relationships.

If leaders want an innovative environment then they need to change some of their controls from measuring how people do things to the results they achieve.

Leaders also demonstrate the importance of activities by bringing the activities closer to them in their organisational design.


Leaders allow departments, functions and people the degree of freedom to operate in keeping with the idea, the goal, the resource constraints and the style of organisation they think is necessary to achieve the goal.

There is no sense in giving freedom to set budgets at a level of the organisation that does not have the skill to do so. Similarly, there is no sense in giving a person that does not have timely access to all the relevant information freedom to make decisions, which have a material impact on the organisation. Leaders do, however, when they are convinced that a person has the competency and the data to make decisions, give them the authority to do so without reference to another party.


The flip side of accountability for a leader is control. The controls of an organisation impact on its members? behaviours as much as the leader?s ability to articulate and demonstrate does.

Leaders revise and set controls based on the ideas, the goal and the steps to get there and in addition, the style of the organisation they want.

Controls come in many forms. Power is a control. Power may come from sources such as a leader?s position, expertise or likeableness. However, in large organisations written processes with targets or ranges for the performance of the process are necessary.

Processes are described at several layers from work instructions up to very high level processes. For example, processes may range from a work instruction on how to book in a hotel guest using the appropriate key strokes in the Opera Hotel Management System to a high level process flow for guest management.

At each level a measure of how well the process is being executed is required. Leaders will determine, with or without their subordinates, the top five to ten measures which tell them about the performance of the organisation. The performance will be measured in the context of the goal and the style of organisation they want to have. They ensure lead as well as lag indicators are measured.

Leaders combine these key performance indicators with audits of processes to measure where they are. They use the problem identification and problem solving skills of the organisation to close the variation in performance from where they to where they should be.

Leaders do not confuse performance indicators with a goal such as $10M profit or a target such as $50M sales or a business objective of a project milestone deadline of 19th March. They do not confuse their subordinates with hundreds of pseudo KPIs. They do not confuse their subordinates with competing interrelated KPIs. They do not confuse their subordinates with KPIs that do not bear a strong relationship with the goal. They do not confuse their subordinates with KPIs which nobody believes in because it cannot be measured with the required level of accuracy to know that their actions are having an effect.

Leaders build in consequences for people who are accountable for processes and consistently do not reach their threshold value or remain within their agreed range of their KPIs.


Leaders have many different traits, but they do common things. They may do them informally or formally. However, they all create and articulate an idea with a goal whilst demonstrating how they want people to behave. They allow people the degrees of freedom which maximises the ability to attain the goal whilst maintaining sufficient control to guide the organisation towards the goal.