What is leadership and what makes a great leader?

In the first of a series of blogs on leadership, Sir George Buckley, former 3M Chairman and CEO of other multinational firms, discusses what is leadership and what makes a great leader.

We can all think of examples of outstanding leadership in the past. They might be military people, political ones, science, academic or corporate examples. Julius Caesar, the Duke of Wellington, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln or Steve Jobs, to name just a few.

What separates a great leader from an average one you might ask? What qualities do they show – and how are they viewed from afar or perhaps from below?

Real leadership is always associated with courage, ethics, imaginative ideas, and creativity. It is action-oriented – driving if you like – and it involves excellent communications that inspire people to do things above and beyond what they might ordinarily do. It covers breakthrough ideas and a certain relentlessness in execution. And it always includes the ability to make gut-wrenching choices when the chips are down.

Leaders are the people who have that uncanny ability to separate success from failure, victory from defeat and extracting the simple from the complex. Also, authentic leadership requires excellent insight and a significant degree of foresight. These are just some of the characteristics we see in great leaders.

What makes a great leader?

Great leaders are always ‘born and tested’ in times of stress. Great captains are not made from sailing ships on calm waters, but when dealing with massive storms and violent seas. A great mountain climber needs large mountains to climb – and so it is with leaders.

It is said that every CEO believes that they follow an idiot and are replaced by an impostor. Whether that is true or not, in my case, every organisation I had the privilege to lead was one which was in varying degrees of distress. In one case it was threatened by new legislation, one by intense foreign competition, another by rapidly changing technologies. Once it was a company that had lost its way and was dying on the vine. In every case, there was a kind of crisis that had to be overcome. Oddly enough, sometimes my superiors didn’t realise there was a crisis, or if they did, they didn’t fully understand the extent.

We observe that, in almost every case, great leaders were ‘change agents’ of one kind or another. They might have been overthrowing a government, like the Bourbon kings in France. They might have been scientific figures such as Albert Einstein, questioning the universal validity of Newtonian mechanics. Before that, even Newton himself, the original Natural Philosopher, finding his way into so many different areas of science, mathematics, politics and religion. But it always required an iron will to buck the system in some way or other.

Irish playwright, critic, polemicist and political activist, George Bernard Shaw once said:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

The corollary of this statement is that, if you want to make a significant change, at some point, you’ll be required to be unreasonable. It also implies that, while being a bit unreasonable at times, you may also become unpopular.

So, if you think that leadership is a popularity contest, it’s not. You may be popular eventually if you do the right thing, but while travelling along this pathway of change, it may not always be that comfortable.

Creating value as a leader

As a corporate leader, I was appointed to create more value for my shareholders. The system is that investors give you a bag of gold at the beginning of the process, and your job was to make that bag of gold bigger at the end.

But candidly, I never believed that that was my sole responsibility. I saw my organisation as partly financial, part social, part environmental and part a technological entity. The value that my company brought to society was far greater than just making more money for shareholders – although I need to be clear, if I didn’t do that well, I was going to get fired.

So, leading a business or indeed, any organisation is always a delicate balancing act. We are trying to find an optimal point to achieve the best combination of financial, societal, individual and environmental goals. It’s more than just squeezing the last drop of lemon juice out of the lemon – or getting blood from the proverbial stone.

Don’t get me wrong; any business that cannot be profitable ultimately cannot be sustainable. You can’t do any of the other CSR and ESG items I spoke about earlier if your organisation can’t be profitable or run at a surplus.


Do you have any advice for aspiring leaders? Drop us a line @SGBLeadership on Twitter or on LinkedIn

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A successful leader will lead their companies through adversity, bringing them out the other side stronger and better than ever before.

Sir George Buckley

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