What makes a good leader?

Have you ever had one of those bosses that just wants to assert their authority and tell you what to do, without setting an example? I have. I’ve been pondering what it means to be a good leader, and with a group of friends one Saturday, this is what we came up with.

As we usually do with these sorts of things, we go around and share concrete examples relating to the question. Some are inevitably negative or examples of the negated version of the question — sometimes it’s easier to remember a bad experience. However, my example was a very positive one and was, in fact, the example we chose to examine a little more closely.

To sum up my example, I was volunteering at a retreat centre in a busy kitchen and the Kitchen Manager (KM) – let’s call her Glenda – told me off for asking sometime else to lend me a hand. In this situation, I wasn’t contributing to the overall vision of the team as Glenda was handing over to a new Kitchen Manager that day and only the two of them knew what the priorities were in this deadline driven and chaotic environment.

I felt that what made Glenda a good leader in this situation was all in the way she handled it. She was honest, direct and helped me to understand why my behaviour wasn’t helping. Essentially, she said to me ‘Anna, only Sarah (the new KM) knows what the priorities are. She is the KM now. Please focus on what your task is. If you need help, then let Sarah know.’ Afterwards, she smiled nicely and walked off.

I was immediately put out I must admit. How bloomin’ dare she come on over here and tell me what’s for when I’m only trying to help?!? However, over time and upon reflection, I began to realise that what Glenda had done was actually very smart. She’d dealt with a situation on the spot, in a chaotic environment and got the result she needed. She nipped a situation in the bud. What I couldn’t see at the time, but have since gained a sense of clarity on was the fact that, in such a process driven environment, to have more than one person giving direction is potentially very confusing for everyone. Especially when some people, people like me, were asking for other people to help when I didn’t know what the priorities were for the kitchen as a whole.

Therefore, in this situation, we came to the conclusion that a good leader is:

• empathetic and caring,
• is not threatening or dominant,
• responds to the situation quickly and skilfully,
• explains and not blames,
• role-models the values of the organisation,
• is discrete and tactful, and
• directs your behaviour.

Further, there were some interesting questions raised throughout our discussion. These included; a need for clarity on the distinction between a manager and a leader; a question of who Glenda was actually supporting, simply the new KM or myself; and the question of whether the culture of the organisation (in this case a retreat centre) defines good leadership.

To end, I would like to say thank you for Jayne Crowe’s excellent facilitation of our discussion on leadership and to Pat Wood’s admirable organisation.

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