What are the characteristics and traits that make a great leader?

Dr Saima Rana

This article is by Dr Saima Rana, who is Principal/ CEO of GEMS World Academy Dubai and Chief Education Ambassador for the Varkey Foundation.

There’s no one right way to be a leader but in a world which increasingly feels like we’re living in our own little bubbles and echo chambers I think there is a kind of leadership model that can help us escape.

I think leadership is a bit like a piece of art. A good piece of art is where there’s a lot going on, so there are contrasts and juxtapositions and a sense of liveliness that makes it human and full of interest. Yet we don’t want too much of this or else it becomes chaotic and gives us a headache. So we also like it to have a structure and order so we can appreciate the liveliness.

But we don’t want it to have too much order, or else it becomes dull and predictable and won’t inspire anything but boredom and the feeling that we’re trapped and not human anymore. That’s why I love paintings by Titian and Van Gough where there’s a lot going on but in an orderly way.

I think leadership is like this although obviously it’s different from painting. I think it’s fundamentally about ensuring you achieve amazing things by drawing on the powers of expressiveness and order in a human, humane, way. For me, a great leader is one who knows what has to be achieved and has a big vision to guide her. And she understands that to realise this vision she will need to create a culture around her that lives and breathes the vision in all its dimensions all the time.

Having a vision

This is why the vision has to be big because it needs to have massive reach, and depth and be endlessly inspiring. It has to contain the potential of all the liveliness of whatever domain it’s in.

My domain is education. All the great educational leaders I know have this sense of education’s awesome potential in their sights, and how education can charge up the worlds of everyone and make something inspirational and wonderful happen. Professor Tim Brighouse is one of my leader role-models because this is what he conveys, a huge sense of education’s titanic wondrousness and transforming power.

When listening to him talk to a group of teachers you get a sense of the energy of his vision and his passionate belief that everyone in the room will be inspired by it. He’s basically always saying that education is the best thing in the world and that we can all be part of it if we understand its importance and make it our vocation. But he’s not just saying these wonderful things, because if that was all he did then eventually we’d begin to feel a little lost and overwhelmed, and think it was just empty rhetoric.

So he also gives structure and order to these ideas and helps show how they can be translated into regulations, strategies, cultures, processes, procedures and institutions developed through history, philosophy, praxis, knowledge and experience. But he makes sure that all these don’t become too rigid and inhuman.

He gets the balance right between being inspirational and being structured so he stops people feeling lost without losing the greatness in his vision. So he’s my number one educational leader role-model. And I would think what makes him great in education are things that would also make a great leader in any other domain.

Now we’ve seen all sorts of political leaders having to step up because of the Covid 19 pandemic and it’s been useful to reflect on who we think has approached the role well. I think the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern has been very impressive.

In fact, she’s been a role model for me from before the pandemic struck. What strikes me about her way of leading is that she retains a sense of authority and power whilst at the same time maintaining an ability to be expressive and human.

Leadership test 

A leader has to be powerful enough to be a leader. That might sound obvious but it’s easy to confuse power with leadership. I think if I look around at many of Ardern’s male counterparts across the globe that’s a mistake many of them make. If you get your power from being the boss, then force is your primary leadership tool.

But Ardern, like Napoleon and Mandela before her, knows that a leader has power first and then is given leadership. Great leaders get their power from having a vision big enough to capture everyone’s imaginations and make people feel that they know how to get the vision working. So Ardern doesn’t use sheer force to boss people about like many political leaders seem to be doing at the moment but rather she talks to them about the issues that have to be addressed, lays out how it’s going to be done and works hard to build alliances of trust all within the context of her inclusive vision.

This is reflected in the way she speaks to her compatriots. She’s very different from many other leaders because she doesn’t hide her feelings and she talks straight. She keeps her expressiveness and she doesn’t make things up or pretend things are easy when they’re hard. And people tend to believe her because they
know that life really isn’t always a bed of roses.

Of course it’s important that we think none of this is phony and that she’s sincere and not putting on an act. With Ardern I think her sense of duty and humility comes across strongly and when she speaks to the nation it seems very personal and trustworthy. She can do this because she believes in her vision, and so when we see her we see her belief and so we believe it too. I think that’s how she’s built a consensus.

Consensus isn’t compromise: consensus is where you persuade everyone to walk onto your agenda wanting it to be theirs.

So my favorite leaders have to be authoritative, have to have structures, strategies, rules and build a good culture, but these mustn’t be too rigid or go against the overarching vision. She must talk to everyone and build powerful alliances based on trust and therefore must be ethical, sincere, and honest.

Leadership must be the expression of a powerful and inspiring vision and be structured by a realizable and humane systematic order based on knowledge, and experience. It’s a tall order. But I think Ardern has so far pulled this off and has shown us how we might use leadership to bring together our increasingly fragmented and divided world.