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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Ordinary leaders—And why it pays to invest in them

Leadership is often associated with having a high profile and a charismatic personality, but the leadership that keeps the world moving is carried out by ordinary people, says Nick Sceats. He explains why learnability, stickability and accountability play a crucial role in effective leadership development.

One of the things that gets in the way of many people leading is a popular misconception that effective leaders must possess some special leadership DNA. This view has come about because the leaders that easily spring to mind are those who have brought about some type of heroic change: the Ghandis, Churchills, Nightingales, and Martin Luther Kings of the world.

In business, the leaders that easily come to mind are those who actively court publicity and notoriety—people such as the Lee Iacoccas and Jack Welchs of the world. Effective leadership has become associated with having a high profile and a charismatic personality.


While the world occasionally needs heroic leaders, 99 percent of leadership isn’t about heroic acts carried out in the public eye. The leadership that keeps the world moving is carried out by ordinary people removed from the public spotlight. These people have no special leadership chromosome.

As Jim Collins reveals, in his book Good to Great, research shows the primary characteristics of leaders of great companies are humility and determination.

Our experience is similar. In the last 20 years we have worked with many great leaders. Very few are larger than life characters. Once the myth of “leadership DNA” is exposed, it has a truly liberating effect. It opens up the possibility that everyone can be a leader.

More lately and closer to home, in 2018 Catapult published Leaders Like You. The book’s title came from the fact that the diverse set of leaders profiled, while having all accomplished things of note, were just everyday people, not super heroes. The book also published research we undertook with over 1000 New Zealanders to find out what Kiwis look for in leaders.

Three themes came to the fore—Straight up, Can-do, and Personable. Being straight up is about the fact that we have a low tolerance for leaders who feed us BS and use jargon. Can-do is about leading with a positive attitude, being competent and mucking in when required. Kiwis also want personable leaders who we can have a beer or a cup of tea with—we are not attracted to leaders who think they are superior by virtue of a title.

All of these factors can be learned and they point us toward the three categories of learning that leadership development programmes often focus on—the heart, head, and hand of leadership.

The Heart of Good Leadership

The heart of good leadership is all about having high self-awareness and emotional and social intelligence (EQ and SQ). In other words, knowing your strengths and weaknesses and having the ability to recognise the emotional needs of others.

Leaders high in EQ and SQ are adept at picking up on other people’s behavioural and emotional clues. They use these clues to discern others’ emotional moods and needs and respond appropriately. Conversely, leaders with low EQ and SQ do not read these clues. They risk running roughshod over others, blissfully unaware of the negative impact they can have.

While some people are naturally gifted with high EQ and SQ, these attributes can be developed through exposure to tools such as the DISC Behavioural Styles framework. Such tools give leaders insights into their preferred behavioural styles and personality traits. Once aware of their styles and strengths and weaknesses, leaders can adapt their approach to work more effectively with others.

The Head of Good Leadership

To be effective, leaders must also know how to do things. This is the head of leadership. Effective leaders are in the business of future-proofing their group. This requires leaders to be forward-looking and think strategically.

They must look beyond the here and now to see where the group needs to go if it is to remain relevant to customers and stakeholders. Leaders must also generate the strategic thinking that will guide the group to this new future.

Strategic thinking skills can be learned and there is an abundance of courses available to leaders, from half-day seminars to weeks at Harvard. Creating a vision and strategic plan is the easy bit—the hard bit is execution. There are practices that can be learned about implementing strategy, but what it really takes is fortitude and discipline.

The Hand of Good Leadership

Effective leaders must also make sure things get done. Leaders must delegate, motivate and coach people. Leaders must also be able to have challenging conversations and must make timely and effective decisions. Coaching skills, listening skills and the fundamentals of motivation are all learnable and will be present in the engine room of most leadership programmes.


We believe then the question isn’t whether leadership can be learned, but how to make learning stick. From our two decades of experience, the biggest barrier to embedding learning is the “organisational water” that leaders swim in.

During a leadership programme, participants are exposed to fresh thinking. They swim in a very pure, nutrient rich and oxygenated pond of leadership practice and possibility. However, when these leadership “fish” return to work, they often find the water of the organisational pond they are released back into is oxygen and nutrient poor, or even toxic.

At an organisational level, “poor water” is cultural. People returning from a leadership development programme may find that their organisation’s beliefs and practices are far from what good looks like.

With fresh eyes and expectations of what could be, the returning learner either reluctantly resigns themselves to what is, or leaves to find an organisation more aligned to what they now know is possible.

On a practical and immediate level, “poor water” can manifest in the learner’s manager not supporting them to practise their new leadership skills. The organisational water is such that supporting application of learning back on the job is not a priority. As a result, the learner ends up defaulting to old practices and the programme becomes a fond memory.

Ideally, the manager meets with the learner and a plan is developed for how new approaches and skills can be put into practice—time, permission and opportunity are created. Failure to do this is akin to sending someone on a basketball course where they learn great theory and ideas, but are not given the chance to try them out on court. Sure, not everything is going to work, or work first time, but without giving the learner an opportunity to get on the court and give things a go, why bother sending them on the course?

Because of this fish and water dynamic, to maximise leadership learning it’s important to work on both the fish and water. Programme content and delivery to participants has to be excellent, but a good leadership development provider will also engage the organisation to make sure ensure the organisation’s beliefs and practices support learners to apply what they have learned.


How do you measure the impact of a leadership programme for an organisation? Is it worth the investment? As a provider of leadership development programmes, we are quick to admit that measuring the impact is difficult because there are so many internal and external variables that can have an impact on a leader’s performance, or the perception of their performance. It can be done, but it is costly and the vast majority of our clients decide to go with an ROE rather than an ROI measure of success.

ROE stands for Return on Expectations—which, very simply, is what the organisation expects to see from leaders as a result of investing in the programme. This might include specific behaviours through to a positive lift in staff engagement survey results with regard to people’s confidence in the organisation’s leadership.

Another accountability mechanism is having leaders undertake leadership 360 degree feedback reviews. This is where a leader’s performance is assessed by up to 20 people, made up of peers, direct reports, the person they report to, suppliers and customers. In fact, anyone who is in a position to provide informed feedback about the person’s leadership.

A good 360 feedback tool will provide a wealth of data and insights, but at the most basic level it will show where the leader is doing well and where there are developmental needs. The leader will then be able to identify developmental goals which they can work on either through formal training or on the job coaching and mentoring. In six to twelve months they can repeat the 360 degree feedback review to see whether they have succeeded in positively shifting their performance.

Good leadership development programmes make leaders more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and equip them with tools and skills to bring about the best in others.

Given the high cost associated with replacing staff, investing in leaders who are more able to attract and retain staff makes investing in leadership development pretty good sense. However, if you are going to make the investment, make sure your organisational water supports your fish to put into practice what they have learned.

NICK SCEATS is a managing director of Catapult: Leaders Who Can and Cultures that Enable.

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