What makes a great business leader? Should leaders be assessed on financial performance only, or should ‘softer’ leadership attributes such as people skills be taken into account? Should leaders aim to emulate the ruthless, take-no-prisoner management style of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch – who consistently delivered exceptional results – or should they aspire to the more holistic, ‘human’ style of leadership espoused by most business schools today?

CEOs are mainly appointed for one reason only – to make money for company shareholders. Academics and other commentators can argue all they like for team-based approaches and more inclusive styles of leadership, but the crucial measure in the end will always be the financial performance of the company. Whether the CEO is liked or loathed is irrelevant. The bottom line for shareholders will always be return on investment.

But while the hard-core, aggressive approach to business leadership may lead to impressive financial results over the short term, does it necessarily translate to sustainable business success? I believe a company has a better chance of ensuring long-term greatness if business executives are able to take the rest of the organisation along with them, through a balanced leadership approach aimed at fostering engaged employees committed to ensuring the success and sustainability of their own organisation.

As a business leader, my personal rules for achieving this include:

  • Keep the lights on and pay the salaries. As we’ve said, business leaders need to be accountable to a wide range of stakeholders, including employees, shareholders and investors. Unless you’re a not-for-profit organisation, the number one rule is to ensure the venture you are leading remains commercially successful. Staff engagement doesn’t mean much if people can’t receive a pay cheque at the end of the month.
  • Ensure everyone knows the company’s vision, mission and values. Why are you and your employees coming to work every day? Is everyone’s role contributing to the long-term goal and mission of the company? Employees that go beyond their roles and add greater value to the company need to be acknowledged and rewarded appropriately.
  • Understand team members’ personal vision. As a leader, you need to be able to bring your employees closer to their own vision for themselves, and to help them align their own goals with that of the organisation to ensure long-term success.

It is unfortunately the case that many highly successful business leaders – seen in terms of the commercial success of their companies – don’t have the people management skills required of modern leaders. However, many of these leaders have surrounded themselves with people who do have the ‘softer’ skills they themselves lack. Think of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs – a visionary not known for his consultative management style – who appointed people to make up for what he knew were weaknesses in his own leadership style.

The best performing leaders today are those who are self-aware – they have sufficient self-insight to identify their own weaknesses as strengths in others. Their most important role will always be to deliver business results. But they also need to be aware of their impact on those around them, and appoint executives to form a top team consisting of all the complementary skills required to ensure the organisation’s sustained growth going forward. 

Leon Ayo

Leon Ayo is the CEO of Odgers Berndtson South Africa based in Johannesburg. He works within all industries and sectors in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Previously he was a partner in Odgers Berndt...

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