Perhaps some have been given a better genetic capacity to develop into good leaders, but this is no guarantee that they will become good leaders or will ever want to become “leaders” of anything. As a child, we want to become police officers, astronauts, supermen, bus drivers, etc. But it is only as adults that we begin to open up to what interests us. After leaving school and studies, when we enter into working life, some may already have some experience managing things, situations and people, for example, in student organizations and sports clubs, some even in the business world. However, few, if any, of us are ready leaders when we take our first steps in working life. Most people start their working life as entry-level line workers. Some of them then, over time, progress to managerial positions.

The first managerial position already brings new tasks, responsibilities and obligations. Whereas in the past it was enough only to take care of your affairs, now you may have to spend a lot of time thinking about and planning things, supervising and directing the actions of subordinates, intervening in matters, making decisions concerning others etc. Those who feel these types of things are interesting, meaningful and motivating challenges will then pursue their career and, in due course, eventually develop into the new leaders of the future.

I believe – before anyone can develop into a good leader, you must develop into a good employee and team member. One of the essential prerequisites for becoming a good leader is getting along well with others, be they colleagues, supervisors, clients, or anyone else. And, of course, you have to perform well in your job. Only when we are successful in these two things can we aim higher, that is, advance in our careers. Becoming a good leader requires both time and experience. So what are the makings of a good leader? If you Google a little, you will find, for example, the following:

A good leader is good at his job, professional, a good decision-maker, result-oriented, goal-oriented, fair, cooperative, uncomplicated, approachable, listens to others, open to new ideas, businesslike, honest, reliable, straightforward, a good communicator, wants feedback and endures criticism, committed, confident, positive, humorous, a good inspirer and motivator, can manage uncertainty and stress, also a failure, leads by example and from the front, with a good attitude. Good leaders have self-awareness and understand how their emotions, values and thoughts impact their work performance, motivation, stress, body language and leadership.

Well, the list above is a bit like Santa’s gift list.

Two comments:

  1. It is good to remember that all leaders, even the good ones, are just human beings, not superhumans. Few people possess all the above-mentioned “features” simultaneously, and even if someone would do that, I don’t think anyone on earth would get the full 10 points for all the things on the list. We all also have weaknesses and shortcomings, also all leaders. That said, most of us hope that a good leader has as many features, values, qualities, and skills as possible of the above type.
  1. A good leader is not a clone who is copied everywhere. Different companies, industries, situations, environments, and circumstances may require very different leaders. The need for good leaders is not limited to the corporate world. Good leaders are needed throughout society. Although good leaders may have many values, qualities and skills in common, the required competencies are always determined by the situation and need. It is one thing to lead, for example, a company, a hospital, a university, an army, the national ice hockey team, the Red Cross, or to be the captain of a ship.

Simply put, I think there are two areas where a person who wants to be a good leader needs to be good and develop continuously: in the business competence relating to their area of responsibility, as well as in interacting with and leading people. I think these two things are inseparable in a good leader, and a good leader is good at both things. One of the crucial abilities of a good leader is to be able to identify, select and hire people who have the right skills, attitude, and willpower, and then manage the company (= them) so that these people feel comfortable, develop, prosper, and stay in the company. Few companies (or any other organization, for that matter) will succeed if their employees have poor skills, a bad attitude, a bad spirit and a high turnover rate. A successful company can usually be identified by good management, aka good leaders and staff who are skilled in their work and enjoy the company. Of course, good products are also needed in the equation. However, good products alone are not enough to compensate for poor management.

I have myself been very lucky. My own experiences with my superiors in my career are exclusively positive. I’ve had three main jobs in my career:

  1. Polar Express, business controller, profit and loss account manager, 7 years.
  2. EXS, European Executive Search Oy, search consultant, research manager, 11 years.
  3. Boyden, research manager, 21 years.

At the time, Polar Express was a leading Finnish internationally operating transport and forwarding company. I reported directly to the CEO, a top leader in his field. Very competent, very demanding, fast-moving, and absolutely fair. On the minus side, distant and busy. However, he always had time for me when I needed it. He trusted me and allowed me to do my job entirely independently. He also clearly showed his appreciation for me and my work. I liked him very much and appreciated him very highly.

EXS was an executive search company belonging to MPS Enterprises. I had a direct superior, but I also worked with the CEO daily. Both persons were very different. My superior was outgoing, people-oriented, sales-oriented, and result-oriented. The CEO was an internationally experienced senior-level top executive, very issue-oriented, very demanding, and very result-oriented. Both were great leaders/managers in their way, who demanded a lot, but who at the same time supported, encouraged, trained, and shared their knowledge with me as best they could. MPS  was a family company, so I also dealt with the owners (again, very different individuals). From them, if possible, I learned even more. The ownership dimension was not present in our interactions at all. I was always treated as an equal, and I was also listened to. I very much liked the owners and the demanding but, at the same time, encouraging, positive and open corporate culture they had created.

Boyden is one of the world’s leading international executive search companies. If you allow me, I would like to share my feelings about my 21 years in Boyden by quoting what I have said in my book How to recognize excellence in Executive Search:” It was a great privilege and pleasure to work in this firm. All my colleagues were truly skilled and professional people who taught me what teamwork is, what a never give in attitude is, and what always giving your everything is all about. How working hard also can give room for good humour and a good atmosphere. Not a day passed without hearing laughter from some room. A real dream team if you ask me.”

These three companies taught me that not all good leaders come from the same mould but that there exist very different types of good leaders. Also, the following features have been present in all three companies = a good team spirit, an open, positive and supportive company culture and great humour.

It is important to be aware of one thing in a good superior-subordinate relationship: reciprocity. All interaction and cooperation are like a two-way street. It goes in both directions. What goes around, comes around. This also applies to all interpersonal relationships. Both must make an effort.

It is nowadays often said that the leaders of the past are yesterday’s news, and now new types of leaders are needed. The world, attitudes, values, technology, and required skills have changed a lot and are continuously changing rapidly, so there is certainly a point in this statement. But the “qualifications and features” of the good leaders of the past have not turned into bad ones—one example is below.

Not so long ago, all self-respecting business people in Finland swore to the name of second lieutenant Väinö Koskela as a role model for a good leader. Väinö Koskela, believe it or not, is a fictitious soldier from a book called The Unknown Soldier, which chronicles the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union during 1941–1944 from the viewpoint of ordinary Finnish soldiers. The book and the film based on the book became so popular in Finland that they are considered part of the national legacy. The film is still shown on TV every independence day in Finland. The book is written by Väinö Linna and is based on his experiences as a Finnish Army soldier in Infantry Regiment 8 during the war. So even though Väinö Koskela is a fictitious person, the book is based on actual persons and happenings, and many characters in the book have their counterparts in real life.

So why was second lieutenant Väinö Koskela considered a role model for a good leader? As a leader, he was described as calm, unpretentious, encouraging, reliable, fearless, and having a high sense of duty. He was a top professional in his “job as a soldier, ” always leading his soldiers from the front. In my mind, these leadership features are just as good and relevant in today’s world as they ever were. Of course, other models exist and are needed, but they do not exclude Väinö Koskela’s leadership style in any way.

On the contrary, I sometimes feel good leadership is lost in many companies nowadays. Instead, in my mind, the leadership often seems to be based more on oversized ambitions, lucrative incentive systems, and inadequate risk management. If you can earn millions completely regardless of whether the company is doing well or makes big losses, this may impact and change the leadership in the most undesirable ways. I hope I am wrong about this, but I am afraid there may be a tiny seed of truth in this statement. I know that despite second lieutenant Väinö Koskela being a role model for a leader of the past, he would also today act in the best interest of his men and never let himself be led astray by wrong ambitions, lucrative incentive systems, and inadequate risk management. So perhaps, after all, not a bad role model for a leader of today.

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