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Unspectacular but solid: does this sum up what makes a great leader?

Forget ‘Level 5′ Leadership – does this really sum up what makes a good leader?

What makes a great business leader? A few of us might be blessed with the ability to light up a room with an inspiring speech or to get people motivated on the back of an exciting vision.


That’s all well and good, but is it enough? In a recent article in Forbes, Victor Lipman sets out six qualities that were common to each of the exceptional leaders he’s worked with. These qualities are a useful reminder that getting the basics of good management right is fundamental to being a great leader.

Lincoln: Is a ‘great leader’ the same as a ‘good teacher’?
(image source:

Time to go back to basics?

“The best management is at the core of the very best leadership”.

That’s the conclusion of Victor Lipman in his summary of the qualities he found to exist with the best leaders he’s worked for. Here are those six qualities shared by effective leaders:
• They managed time well
• They managed risk well
• They managed details well
• They managed numbers well
• They managed people well
• They managed their own lives well

Responding efficiently to calls and messages, keeping an eye out for problems on the horizon, familiarity with figures and with key data, treating staff fairly while at the same time still maintaining a decent work-life balance.

These aren’t revolutionary concepts – which begs the question, surely they’re being followed already?

There’s another striking aspect to each of these attributes: each is the type of skill that is capable of being developed and fostered early in a manager’s career.

The basics of management might be simple. Most managers would probably look at the list featured in the article and would agree that those are exactly the behaviours they should be following. The problem is often in getting managers to actually do it in practice.

There are a couple of reasons why that doesn’t always happen …

1. Inadequate Training

Let’s take the first item on the list – managing time well.

The principle may sound relatively straightforward. It’s all about realistic assessment of how much time is required to complete allotted tasks – along with the ability to prioritise effectively.

Actually putting that principle into practice within the context of a dynamic organisation with competing demands on your schedule is often a different story.

Lipman's key list of 6 leadership skills

Lipman’s key list of 6 leadership skills

How do you make time?

For a manager to display the type of professionalism described in the article, (e.g. responding to messages quickly, running well-organised meetings, not having to burn the midnight oil at your desk) it may seem that all that’s needed is some good housekeeping and a little common sense.

In fact, it takes a relatively complex skillset to manage time effectively. You need to be in control of your environment – which means planning, delegating (see Lipman  on Effective Delegation for more on this), prioritising and the ability to diplomatically manage the expectations of others – both employees and customers.

How do you know what’s round the corner?

Let’s say you’re in junior management having worked your way up from the shop floor.

Everything’s going well – and you’re even managing to display all the six traits described above. Your efforts haven’t gone unnoticed – which means

you’re eventually promoted to the next level.

Risk assessment is a pro-active process. To hone that “keen sense of danger” it is of course vital to acquire the skills necessary to identify the many pitfalls that are out there.

The future is a risky, unknown place ...

The future is a risky, unknown place …

“I wish I’d been taught this stuff earlier!”

One way of measuring whether managers and leaders are doing a good job is of course by asking them. In the UK, the Chartered Management Institute looked at almost 4,500 managers, including over 300 CEOs and 550 HR managers to gauge management and leadership skills. The findings suggested 43 per cent of managers consider their line managers to be ineffective. Many CEOs wished they had access to management and leadership development training earlier in their careers.

Early management training

Managers often wished they’d started their training earlier in life …
(image source:

The same research also stressed once again that good management training really does make a difference. The survey indicated that management and leadership development activities can lead to increases of up to 32 per cent in people performance and 23 per cent in overall organisational performance, across a whole range of different types of organisation.

2. Thrown in at the deep end?

Let’s say you’re in junior management having worked your way up from the shop floor. Everything’s going well – and you’re even managing to display all the six traits described above. You’re efforts haven’t gone unnoticed – which means you’re eventually promoted to the next level.

Promotion: putting square pegs into round management holes?

Promotion: putting square pegs into round management holes?

Without proper training, this could be the point at which things start to unravel. Without the tools to stay on top of the job, there’s a greater chance of losing control; of losing track of the basic principles that are the bedrock of good management.

It’s the idea of “one promotion too many”, or the Peter Principle, invented by Dr Laurence Peter in a 1969 book of the same name. The principle states organisations tend to promote high achievers – until they are put in a job they can’t do. To see inappropriate promotion in action, you only have to look at Michael Brown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. He ended up famously asking “Can I quit now?“. (

Do the right people always get to the top?

There’s also good evidence to suggest being placed in a role for which we have neither the skills nor the training could be bad for us as individuals. One survey suggested that 59 per cent of managers saw promotion as one of the most stressful events of their lives (second only to divorce)!  As in a previous post on this site, sport is particularly rife with leadership that ‘gets it wrong’. 

Those six attributes may be easy to grasp on paper – but putting them into practice in the real world is far from easy!

We’d love to hear your examples of leaders who have those 6 all-important features. Do you have examples of ‘inappropriate promotion’?

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