As a photographer, I’ve been in the rare position to observe the inner workings of many different companies, from small businesses to international corporations. I’ve had the unique perspective of being on the outside looking in. In the process, I’ve seen and experienced the effects of both good and bad leadership, and how it can fundamentally alter the course of a company or an individual’s life. I have met incredible leaders who motivate and inspire their team to excel. One such person is Dr Brand Pretorius, former CEO of McCarthy Motor Holdings. I was privileged enough to attend one of his speaking engagements. He spoke about leadership, and I was completely blown away by his humility. He’s written a book on the subject, called In the Driving Seat, available here. After his talk, I went over to speak to him. I found him warm and engaging, the kind of person who makes you feel incredibly important, even though they’re of much higher standing than you are.
Sadly, not all the leaders I’ve encountered over the years fit this profile. In fact, I’ve seen staff tremble at the thought of having to address their superiors. When you’re observant, it’s easy to notice the same patterns being repeated again and again. Good leaders share similar traits. So do horrible bosses. These are a few of the significant leadership elements I’ve noticed on both sides:
Humility vs. Pride:
A good leader focuses on the task at hand without airs and graces. He sees himself as positioned to serve, instead of to be served. Humility is the opposite of arrogance, it’s a quiet strength of character, and most powerful leaders exude this quality in bucket loads. Humility is one of those elusive concepts. It just is. You cannot force it into being.
A good leader knows that as the head of his team, he is ultimately responsible for decisions that get made, as well as the consequences of those decisions. The buck stops with him. Blame has no place here. And speaking of decisions – a good leader is willing and able to make decisions. No matter how difficult, a good leader knows that making a decisive decision is almost always better than not making any decision. Indecision causes loss of momentum, without which no organisation can move forward. A bad leader refuses to take responsibility, instead blaming everyone for the inevitable fallout that comes from not leading well.
Without vision, a leader is merely a group coordinator. It is a leader’s responsibility to have a goal and a strategy in mind, and the vision to reach both. He is the one who knows the path, and who guides people in the right direction. The willingness to adapt and change is closely linked to working towards a vision. The end goal remains the same, but adjustments and course corrections should be made based on input received as you work towards the goal.
Accountability and feedback:
A good leader will have his own mentor or accountability partner. No man is an island and a good leader sees value in being accountable to a mentor or to one of his peers. He knows that he doesn’t have all the answers, and is willing to take counsel from someone he respects. Conversely, a bad leader believes that he is always right, and won’t take advice from anyone, leaving him unable to grow.
Trust and inspiration:
A good leader’s team looks up to him. He inspires them to grow and to become who he knows they can be. His confidence in them is evident, encouraging them every step of the way. He sees people, not just numbers. He doesn’t micromanage but hires and empowers staff with the skills needed to get the job done. He doesn’t hover or peek over shoulders, questioning people’s every move. He leads and trusts his team. A leader who doesn’t trust his team will be suspicious of everything they do, and will never be able to value the contribution they make. Trust is a springboard that propels people in a positive direction. Distrust puts people on the back foot, always having to explain themselves instead of being left to just get on with things.
Inclusivity and empowering people:
A good leader does everything in his power to empower his team to do their best work. This includes supplying them with the tools they need to get the job done, as well as nipping things in the bud that threaten to affect the team morale. He fosters a culture of inclusiveness, not exclusivity. In his world, there is no ‘us’ vs ‘them’, there’s only the team and the end goal.
Consistency and self-control:
A good leader is someone who manages his stress levels apart from his team. Though he is productive, he is even-tempered and consistent, not prone to outbursts. His team knows that they can count on him, he brings order to the chaos, he is the rudder that steers the ship. He leads the way by doing and showing, not by demanding from people what he hasn’t empowered them to do.
Unfortunately, I’ve observed people in positions of power who are the total opposite of this. I’ve seen them rule with an iron fist, insulting, shouting and demeaning those under them. Using fear to rule may make you feel powerful for a moment, but it will never result in a team that is cohesive. Those who use power against people who report to them are bullies trying to mask their own feelings of unworthiness.
I once had a booking at a client’s office. His secretary had forgotten to take care of a minor administrative detail, not at all detrimental to the shoot. She was terrified and her fear was evident when she asked me in a whisper not to tell him about it. I could feel how afraid she was, and I could only assume the kind of leader her boss was. I was sad for her.
Kindness and generosity:
A good leader is approachable. His team don’t fear engaging with him because every interaction leaves them better off than before. Kindness and generosity are second nature to him. Generosity could be financial, sure, but it’s more about having a generous spirit towards people. He has no favourites but treats everyone equally.
A good leader has solid boundaries. He respects the boundaries of his team members and sets the parameters for how he expects to be engaged with. He doesn’t change the goalposts depending on his mood but sticks to the plan that he has clearly outlined to his team.
There is so much more that can be said about good leadership. Many books have been written on the topic. The more I became aware over the years, the more I learned what a good leader looks like. Incidentally, I’ve never met one person who imbues all of these characteristics. We’re all a work in progress. The person who most closely resembled this was my boss for a very short period 20 years ago. I still remember him. The impact he made on me has stayed with me since then. Some of these characteristics are easier said than done and I definitely haven’t mastered them all, but I hope that one day I can be the kind of leader that leads from a place of humility and inner strength like he was.
Until next time, Marinda