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Getting to the top and staying there: What makes a successful leader?


Getting to the top and staying there: What makes a successful leader?

To remain at the summit, it is absolutely critical to possess both learning agility and emotional intelligence in managing one’s self and others...

On a recent visit to KZN I was fortunate enough to touch base with some friends and colleagues for an afternoon catch up. Of this group of individuals, I am the only one that works within the traditional human resources discipline. Naturally, over the years I have come in for a bit of abuse around the perceived “fluffy” “tree-hugging” and “people-centric” nature of my profession. Many of the individuals within the group are CEOs, CFOs and Senior Executives in some very well known, large organisations that have delivered massive shareholder value and business growth. Over lime milkshakes (yes, even the most powerful Execs cannot resist the deliciousness that is a double-thick milkshake), the conversation turned to what makes for a successful Executive Leader in today’s world and, in particular, within the South African context.

There was a lot of debate, but the consensus around the table is that there are two “phases” one must go through in order to reach the top. Getting to the top, and staying at the top.

Getting to the top

Ruthless execution and delivery, delivery, delivery – when you start your career “climb”, nothing matters more than delivery. It’s the single most important differentiator and without it, you go nowhere. During this phase, it is “acceptable” to forego the human element. So even if you have great leadership skills, these matter significantly less than what you deliver to the organisation’s bottom line. Also, a sense of ruthlessness with people is often not only acceptable, but encouraged. This part of the process is concerned with the application of skills and competencies that increase operational efficiency and delivery.

Staying at the top

It is another question altogether when one gets to the top, because the rules of the game change completely. Delivery and execution is assumed, and so value has to be delivered through some other means. Without exception, the view around the table was that emotional intelligence is the number one thing that top leaders must possess in order to remain top leaders. Emotional intelligence can be defined as an interrelated group of interpersonal competencies and skills that, when combined, result in greater self-awareness, adaptability, cooperation with others and more.

CEOs that possess emotional intelligence are self-aware. They recognise and manage their emotions, particularly under stress or pressure. In addition when you are emotionally intelligent you are cognisant of the emotions and feelings of others. This is an important skill for Executives because leading teams of other Managers takes a certain finesse. This finesse comes from the ability to understand where other people are coming from, and ultimately allows you to tailor your approach to each member of the team in order to unlock value.

Higher self-awareness also gives rise to learning agility, the ability to effectively develop new behaviours in response to new situations. A learning agile leader is one who does not shy away from change, but who actively manages change, who embraces new experiences and who continues to grow as a leader, even when he or she has reached the ‘top’.

That’s all very nice, but what does one do with this insight?

The good news, is that either as an individual or as a business, you don’t have to leave this to chance, or hope that that you got enough of Mom and Dad’s good genes to hack your way to the top. It is possible to assess both learning agility, interpersonal competencies and overall self-awareness (through an objective and robust psychometric approach) in order to determine where your current leaders are, what future leaders will need, and how big the leadership gap is between your present state and your future state.

Once you have this picture it is then important to either develop your current executive leadership in preparation for the future as well as begin developing up-and-coming learning agile leaders in both “getting there” skills as well as “staying there” skills. This, by extension, demands that current talent and career models will have to be interrogated to ensure that they accommodate this. It also means that sometimes difficult decisions may need to be taken if current leaders show lower levels of learning agility or self-awareness, as this may be result in an unwillingness to change and adapt (a critical future skill) to the mapped demands of the future. If you follow these steps (or answer these questions), you should be able to start the process of identifying and developing leadership for the future.

  • Where are we going to play? What does the world and our market look like and what type of business are we going to be in?
  • How are we going to win?
  • What competencies will we need in our people to get there?
  • What competencies will we need in our leaders to lead us there and maximise value once we get there?
  • Based on current and objective assessment, how close or far away are we from manifesting this reality? What do we need to do to make the boat go faster?
  • Who will we partner with to create/measure/assess/monitor our progress along the way? Not many organisations have in-house assessment centres or resources to do this, so the choice of a partner is critical to success.

Of course, even with the most rigorous models and approaches, timing and a certain amount of luck also play their part in creating the opportunities for growth and promotion. The bottom line is that unless you start preparing for the future, the future may swallow you up.

Despite a tacit recognition from my hard-nosed business colleagues around the table in KZN that emotional intelligence is a key BUSINESS imperative, this does not allow me off the hook when it comes to being the whipping boy when we meet again. I’m happy with that, and even as I write this, most of them have made contact with me (and have made me swear on fear of death not to tell the others) requesting some assistance in either their personal development or leadership team development.

So even old dogs can learn new tricks, and I’m optimistic that the thing that keeps these successful people at the top is that same quality that allowed them to recognise the importance of change, and the courage to take action in response to it – learning agility.

By: Brandon Gillham


Southdowns Ridge Office Park, Centurion, Gauteng, South Africa