We all have a view about what the non-negotiable qualities of good leaders should be: they should be visionary, inspirational, influencial, people-centred … the list goes on. Have you thought of the quality that you admire most in good leaders?
I am of the opinion that wise and knowledgeable leaders bring stability, and it is for this reason that stability is the quality I admire most in leaders. Stability is something we don’t often think about as a leadership quality – that is, until it is absent. Think of the worst leader possible. I can almost certainly guarantee that such an individual does not offer any assurance or sense of solidity. The erratic behaviour and inconsistent actions of poor leaders create unnecessary levels of tension, anxiety and discord. A lack of stability harms growth, stifles productivity, erodes trust, and makes it extremely difficult to focus on the task at hand. A mood of instability also portends bigger problems to come.
On the other hand, the admirable quality of stability in leaders is that they provide a stabilising influence on those that surround and support them. Such leaders you can trust. Leaders that instil stability bring certainty and consistency, which teams, organisations and countries so desperately need, but often find lacking.
Deepak Chopra confirmed these thoughts on stability after completing an international survey on leadership. He writes, “Offering and bringing stability is critical for all leaders. This is especially true as countries and companies are experiencing unprecedented challenges and changes.” Political landscapes are changing and countries are experiencing economic turmoil. Businesses are shaped by these and other mass disruptions such as technology, social media, and the convergence of four contrasting and dissimilar generations in the workplace. Stability is therefore critical to reassure people and to inspire them to give their best. Challenges require resolute and stable leadership.
Few things positively impact a country, organisation or team like a stable tone from the top. A humble and resolute confidence, a sure hand, and a steady calm inspire trust in a leader’s competence and capability. Stable leaders not only know where they stand, but they also leave no doubt in the minds of others as to what matters, and what will and won’t be tolerated or accepted.
South Africa is not any different. The role players in our political landscape are distracted and there is a great need for composed and unwavering political leadership. Economically, we desperately require calm, competent and level-headed leadership to assure rating agencies and the world that we are creditworthy and show promise of economic growth and stability. Firm and principled leadership is compulsory to save failing parastatals and struggling corporate entities. Steady leadership is greatly needed in churches, communities and schools. Even our national sport teams require established leadership that offers stability and a promise of consistency.
It is indeed a quality desperately needed. The best leaders in my view create a sense of hope. With them at the helm there is an expectation of better things to come. There is greater optimism and there are more authentic and lively discussions about the future even in the toughest times.
In building this leadership quality, leaders should do some soul searching and find answers to issues that will greatly impact on the stability they offer. I like to view these issues as pillars of stability and will discuss five below.
1. How credible are you?
Credibility is the foundation of stable leadership and is about a leader’s believability: if you don’t believe the messenger, you won’t believe the message. Honesty, competence and trustworthiness come to mind as the elements that influence a leader’s ability to be credible. Without credibility there is very little stability. As leaders exhibit higher levels of credibility, their followers are more productive, supportive and trusting. Without trust, leaders cannot have a relationship with their followers; and leadership does not exist without relationships.
2. What core values do you stand for?
Core values are central or foundational principles, standards, morals, ethics, and ideals. Values always have worth, importance and significance.
Stable leaders have an open mind, but they also have strong convictions and core values. While stable leaders listen to others, they are not prone to being indecisive. Their values drive their actions – they do not court public opinion. You might not always agree with stable leaders, but you’ll never have any doubt as to where they stand. They are decisive when it comes to choosing to do what is right, not wrong.
Leaders must know their own values and beliefs if their motivation is to be consistent. Their values must be in line with those of the organisation for which they work, or they cannot truly commit to the work they are doing. Stable leaders know that living their values must apply to their constituents as well. Leaders must work to help their teams to develop values and ensure that the work they do aligns with those values. However, leaders cannot create values in isolation and expect followers to commit to them just because they are supposed to do so.
3. Do you know who you lead?
The most stable leaders understand that their success is rooted in the care and well-being of those they lead. Stable leaders have a natural bias toward empathetic and compassionate behaviour. They don’t listen in order to respond, but to in order to understand. When those you lead know you care, it creates a sense of trust and stability not often found.
4. Do you allow others to fail by taking blame out of the equation?
If the people you lead are afraid to make mistakes, you’ll never see their best work – you will have led them to a permanent state of mediocrity. Stable leaders make it safe for people to think big, take risks, and try new and different things. Nothing creates stability more than a high-trust environment where people are rewarded for right behaviours – not punished for wrong behaviours.
Blame is the enemy of stability. Blame is not about accountability; it is about passing a contentious issue or challenge and making sure it lands in someone else’s lap. Taking blame out of the organisational culture and replacing it with a more solution-oriented mindset allows more people the confidence to participate in solving problems as they arise, rather than spending time looking for ways to shift blame or to take cover.
As Jim Collins explains it in Good to great, we need stable leaders who “[o]n the one hand … look in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck. Yet on the other hand, they look out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company—to other people, their teams and colleagues”
5. Do you embrace the future?
Leaders who broaden their knowledge base create a more stable environment. The more leaders know and understand about future challenges, the less there is to fear. Focusing on the future sets leaders apart, as does their capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities. Leaders should gain insight from their past experiences, but should inspire others to see what a better tomorrow will look like, and should show people how they will be part of that picture.
Leaders should talk about the future, where they would like to be, and what will be needed to be successful. People need to be confident, resilient and eager to see and experience what may appear around the corner.
According to Kouses and Postner’s leadership research, the most common question followers asked when faced with the scenario of a new leader entering an organisation or team was: “What’s your vision? Where are you taking us?” This question is not one that followers ask of their teammates or peers, but only of their leaders, which emphasises the importance of a leader’s vision. Leaders are not afraid to talk about the future. They have a compelling case of where the organisation should be and where they see themselves. That is where they will spend most of their time – in the future.
Our problem lies in the fact that our culture has fallen in love with the idea of the celebrity leader – the charismatic individualist who swoops in to save the day, politically, economically and even socially. This fuels the mistaken belief that a high-profile, larger-than-life leader is required to make a country or a company great. We keep putting people into positions of power who lack the inclination to bring much-needed stability. That is one key reason why so few companies and even countries ever make a sustained shift.
As Robert F Kennedy once said, "Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can commit to a series of actions to make the world better, and the sum total of all those actions will write the history of your generation." Maybe there is one of you who will bend history, but for the rest of us, we have the opportunity to make a difference – right here, right now.
Niel Steinmann is a virtual faculty member at USB-ED, he teaches leadership and organisational development.
He is a specialist business consultant with experience in the human resources and management fields and is author of Fundamentals for effective mentoring (2006). His company, People’s Dynamic Development, uses African analogies to develop people and organisations to increase performance capacity.