I have been putting the finishing touches to a book looking at winners in politics, business and sport. Unsurprisingly, leadership looms large in all three areas.
Winners in politics are invariably leaders. So, too, in business where it is powerful individuals who build great brands and global empires. Success in sport, of course, can be measured in athletic superiority or titles won. But it is noticeable how many sporting legends also have the special qualities that reside in the space marked ‘leader.’
In the course of my research, I have read widely and also had the privilege to interview leaders in these different walks of life all across the world. What struck me is just how interchangeable their qualities and approach are.
Look for instance at these words… ‘I would say a person who is a good leader is a person who has ideas and has a vision of the world. To have a vision of the world, you have to have a philosophy of the world and values that are important for you. So the first work a leader has to do is analyse what he wants, what is important to him, and the second step is to make that real.’
You might think from the use of the words ideas, vision, philosophy they come from a politician. They are actually the views of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
He goes on to say ‘our job I find very interesting because it’s more than being an intellectual. An intellectual guy is a guy who lives for his ideas; a football manager is a guy who needs to have ideas as well, but then he has to show that these ideas work and to transform it into a practical aspect.
‘That’s why I find this job interesting: at the end of the day you can check how good your ideas are. I believe as well a leader can be a fantastic person who can influence other people’s lives in a positive way. Therefore he has a great responsibility.’
These thoughts capture something of the essence of what leaders do in any field and the qualities they need to be successful. Leaders have to believe in what they are doing, and that requires a set of beliefs in the first place. They have to have values because they are what will drive you when times are good, and sustain you when times are challenging. Above all, they have to have a clear idea of what they want – their destination – and a clear sense of how to get there. The rest is hard work.
And it is hard – and getting harder in an era where deference has disappeared and been replaced by instant and constant communication. Listen to the intellectual Arsenal manager again.
‘We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society where everybody has an opinion about every decision you make, everybody has an opinion on the internet straight away. Basically the respect for people who make decisions is gone because every decision is questioned. So one of the most important qualities of a good leader now is massive resistance to stress. Under stress you become smaller and smaller until you cannot give out a message any more and that, of course, is something that is vital. Many people underestimate this challenge.’
He’s right. In the vertical society, leaders led and followers followed. In today’s horizontal society, leaders are surrounded by snipers, doubters and cynics. The result is the pressure is more intense than ever to put the short-term before the long-term and the tactical before the strategic.
It was telling, too, how this was a pressure that their counterparts in sport and business thought political leaders were finding harder and harder to resist.
They saw the quality of political leadership around the world as generally low.
Angela Merkel was regarded as an exception, in part because she was considered calm, clear about her agenda and focused on the long term. Vladimir Putin is seen as a strong leader, but for the wrong reasons. Narendra Modi in India excited interest because of the scale and timing of his campaign success. But few others even get on the radar.
At a time when it is crystal clear that our world needs high-quality political leadership, this is a major concern. The pressures may be more intense than ever but the successful leader’s response should be to put more, not less, emphasis on being strategic.
It means understanding that it is no longer possible, if ever it was, to control what people say and think about you and to recognise that you can only control what you say and do yourself. It then becomes easier to separate out the noise that surrounds newsmakers and decision-makers day and night, and focus on the two tasks that set successful leaders apart in any field – setting a clear direction, and taking the most important decisions to ensure you get there.