The 10 most important habits of a good leader

Inspired by LinkedIn’s Sir Alex Ferguson Leadership Award, Dave Allen attempts to write down his own observations on leadership, formed over the last 30 years.

My thoughts are drawn from having had the privilege of working with some strong leaders like Lord Browne, Sir Alistair Grant, Jim Rothenburg, Ted Leonsis, Sir Mike Rake and Sir Martin Sorrell amongst others over the course of my career at WPP* (I have not made reference to any BrandPie clients).

Being a good leader is something I probably think about every day, and something I’ve tried to put into practice at the companies I have run over the years. I know from experience being a good leader over the long-term is not easy.

My aim here isn’t just to provide a laundry list of what you should do to be a good leader; I hope they’ll make you think about how you behave, and subsequently develop your leadership skills.

To business. Good leaders:

1.  Always do what they say they will do.

This is, in my view, the most important thing: it’s critical for any leader to command the respect of their employees, investors and the media. And the way to do that is for leaders to do what they say they will do. All the great leaders I have worked with are obsessed with this – it’s something you can usually feel from the first meeting. And the result is that you feel willing to walk over hot coals for them.

2. Are straightforward

The best leaders don't complicate things and are straightforward to deal with – all they demand in return is clarity Tweet this. They don’t blow up if you deliver bad news openly and honestly, but they will go crazy if you try to hide things and 'spin them'. They also have a knack of asking straightforward questions – “What's happening? Why is that? How can I help?” – which illuminate situations, and hopefully lead to information that can solve problems.

3. Know what they don't know and admit it

Consistently, I’ve seen that good leaders really understand themselves and feel confident enough to admit if they are not an expert in an area or subject. They are never embarrassed to do this and understand it is a strength. But they don’t rest on their ignorance: they have a thirst for knowledge and love to learn. They build a leadership team that compensates for what they don't know and give each person clear roles and responsibilities, so that each person is a valued contributor – which usually leads to a diverse, powerful and high performing team.

4. Have a clear purpose, ambition and strategy for their organisation 

In my view, you can’t be a good leader without ambition: but it has to be ambition that’s underpinned by a clear purpose, and a strategy for achieving it Tweet this. A good leader can explain all three to their employees, investors and customers in a way that contextualises what’s happening in the world, and that fits with what the organisation (and wider society) wants of them. So their storytelling skills, and ability to deliver a simple narrative, also has to be strong.

5. Are driven to make their organisation a success

And not just in the financial sense, but on every front – product and service innovation, their ability to attract and keep talent (not least because they know that targeting short-term financial success only is not a long-term strategy). They are restless and never satisfied with themselves or their company in the pursuit of their purpose and ambition.

6. Are comfortable with change

Dealing with change excites good leaders, as they can see opportunities, and not just the problems. Of course they like a world of certainties, like most people, but realise that ‘phases of grey’ will happen, and so are very comfortable leaving things unresolved until the time is right to act (a habit which can drive ‘completer-finishers’ crazy).

7. Are happy to be persuaded by a good argument

Related to not needing to be the loudest voice in the room, good leaders might have a course of action or decision or action they want to take, but are able to balance their gut instinct with appreciation for compelling evidence compellingly presented. They’re humble enough to know and appreciate that what they did before might not work, and isn’t the only way to do things.

8. Understand how to inspire people 

This is very important. Some of my clients have had upwards of 300,000 employees, and understanding how to inspire the vast majority of a large workforce is a vital skill to have. If delivered correctly, this inspiration can lead people to outperform, improving upon what they might have thought possible.

9. Take control when it matters

Good leaders believe in empowering their people and don’t just pay lip service to it Tweet this – even if they happen to be the best problem solvers in the room, they will allow people to work their way to a solution. That said, they also know when and how to assert control, and are particularly effective in a crisis, taking full ownership of the situation.

10. Deliver good numbers over the long term

No question good leaders are – and have to be – effective over the long term. They build revenue, and are successful at generating quarter-by-quarter growth. And they know that they gave to act swiftly when the numbers aren't good, in order to protect long-term performance. They never shy away from doing what is right and understand precisely when and how to act.

I realise the 10 points above are just one person's view of what good leadership is and I hope you find it useful.

*In case you’re not familiar with all the names I listed above: the late Sir Alastair Grant was the chairman of Safeway Supermarkets in the UK; the late Jim Rothenberg was chairman of the mutual fund company Capital Group; Ted Leonsis is the owner of the Washington Capitals ice hockey team; Sir Mike Rake is chairman of BT Group; and Sir Martin Sorrell is the founder of WPP.