What makes a truly great leader?
There are many skills and qualities involved in guiding a team and, indeed, a company, to success. As well as following the examples of other great leaders and taking inspiration from their words of wisdom, aspiring business owners and entrepreneurs can learn from existing demonstrations of valuable leadership – whether they are taken from history, or pop culture – and implement them into their day-to-day management.
To illustrate this point, we have compiled six leadership lessons – real and fictional – that could be potentially invaluable for business owners and entrepreneurs.
Convey consistency of character
Remaining consistent in your demeanour and actions – even in the face of professional challenges – inspires those around you to have confidence in your ability to lead with a cool head. Gaining your team's trust in this way will allow you to guide their progress better and shape the future of your business.
Ponder carefully the distinctive approach that you would like to be known for – such as calm, direct or transparent – and stick to it. Managing your real and varying emotions may be difficult under pressure, but the positive effects of your consistency will outweigh the effort this will require.
Example: Winston Wolfe
In Quentin Tarantino's 1994 crime classic, Pulp Fiction, hapless hitmen Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield (played by John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson respectively), encounter a sticky situation. Requiring urgent assistance, Harvey Keitel's Winston Wolfe promptly arrives to resolve their problems.
Wolfe's strong reputation precedes him, and he utilises this to calmly and professionally assuage any doubts about his decisions, exuding an air of confidence and security throughout. He cultivates his image as a problem solver, consistently remaining focused under pressure, and for this, he receives respect from those who choose to work with him.
Demonstrate strength through actions, not argument
Business owners inevitably encounter situations of conflict among their team and within their business at large. When your team speaks up in opposition to your own decisions, however, demonstrating your strength and leadership through action, rather than verbal argument, is paramount.
By taking action to evidence why your approach is correct, you reinforce your position as the head of the group. Verbal disagreements, meanwhile, only engender dislike and bitterness from those on the receiving end.
Example: Henry Kissinger
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did just this when negotiating with Israel in 1975, regarding the return of a portion of the Sinai desert seized during warfare in the region years earlier.
Sensing that negotiations were stalling, Kissinger asked to visit some archaeological sites, including the ancient Masada fortress – the site of an Israeli mass suicide in 73AD in defiance of Roman occupation. Without saying a word, Kissinger was insinuating that the Israelis were courting a similar situation through the troubled Sinai negotiations. His message was conveyed much more strongly and received with more reverence than it would have been verbally.
Cultivate the art of persuasion
All great leaders know how to convince others to help achieve their business goals, and power through any obstacles that may stand in the way.
To develop the valuable skill of persuasion, follow the advice of Aristotle: the ancient Greek philosopher characterised persuasion as the perfect combination of three factors – logos, pathos and ethos. This involves crafting a message with factual information (logos), creating an emotional tie to the objective (pathos), and conveying the moral aspect of the argument (ethos).
Example: Abbé Faria
This approach is best illustrated in Alexandre Dumas' adventure classic, The Count of Monte Cristo. In it, wise priest Abbé Faria – already a long-term prisoner of the secluded Château d'If – convinces the young Edmond Dantes to join forces with him and dig a path to freedom through the earth beneath their cells. He implores Dantes to regain his lost hope and strength and dedicate his time to working towards their mutual escape, as Faria knows full well that, with the support of his new friend, he can achieve his goal of escaping the prison in half the time that it would otherwise take.
Faria uses logos, pathos and ethos to persuade Edmond to turn his life around from the inside of his prison cell and work towards a shared goal that will benefit both men.
People naturally admire boldness, which is why business owners must learn how - and, importantly, when - to be bold. This characteristic creates an aura of authority which commands respect from subordinates and peers alike. Hesitation and timidity, meanwhile, engender doubt and dislike. The importance of this quality does not wane at varying stages of the professional ladder, either – being bold benefits the executive manager as much as the early-in-career, as evidenced by Aesop:
A boy brushed a Nettle and was stung by it. His mother told him: 'It stung you because you brushed it. Next time grasp it boldly, and it will be soft as silk and not hurt you'.
Example: Natalie Massenet
Most successful entrepreneurs are bold by their nature, including Natalie Massenet, who, in 2000, decided to revolutionise the fashion industry by launching the first global luxury retail e-store.
Against the advice of financial advisers, fashion contacts, and retail experts, she nevertheless made her move and launched Net-a-Porter, with her bold approach and unswerving belief attracting sufficient startup investment. Her daring approach inspired stakeholders' and associates' confidence in her and allowed her to lead the company to success.
Value your team
In truth, a leader is only as good as the team around them. No business owner or entrepreneur can execute their vision alone, and while hiring the right people may prove challenging, empowering them to develop and blossom is perhaps the most significant task that you will take on.
Indeed, it should be your primary responsibility to nurture their talent, engage them, support them, make them accountable for their work and encourage them to have confidence in themselves; such an empowered team will remain loyal, and commit to achieving success by your side.
Example: Tony D'Amato
Portrayed iconically by Al Pacino in 1999's Any Given Sunday, fictional NFL coach D'Amato forges a strong relationship with his players and other stakeholders, pushing them to obtain the expertise and confidence required to achieve their own success. "I can't make you do it," he tells his assembled squad in the film's legendary finale. "You gotta look at the guy next to you, and see if he will go that inch with you."
As a leader, you cannot be expected to perform the work of your team. Instead, you must nurture them to perform to the best of their abilities – both individually and as a team – and give them all the tools they require to thrive.
Know when to say goodbye
Letting go is tough. Leaders are, however, expected to know when to say goodbye and move on – for the benefit of themselves, the team, and the company. This is particularly prevalent at times of significant change within an organisation, when even a fantastic leader may not have the foundational knowledge to manage the new circumstances and the subsequent business approach required.
Relinquishing control at the right time allows the leader to pass the baton on to a worthy successor, and continue the legacy of support and success.
Example: Winston Churchill
British politician Winston Churchill was an enormously popular and successful Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945 - but he should not have sought to regain that title again in 1951. By refusing to move on and accept the necessity of post-war change, he slowed the UK's political and economic growth upon re-election, undoing years of hard work. During his second tenure, Churchill's government lost strength and focus, and the people under him subsequently suffered from this lack of political alignment.
As a business owner, you should not fall into a similar trap. Identify when it is in the interest of the greater good to move on, and don't risk the integrity of what you have already achieved.
As previously stated, many qualities make a good leader, and it's essential to keep learning and developing your skills. After all, regardless of whether the inspiration for your journey is taken from real life or the silver screen, a willingness to develop and improve is a quality in itself that will stand you – and the health of your business – in good stead.
For more guidance and advice, be sure to take a look at our breakdown of the best leadership podcasts currently on the market, too!
What leadership lessons have guided you? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.