Imperial College London Entrance

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So, if I asked you to define leadership and what makes you a good leader, what would you say? Actually, let’s do it; in 60 seconds, answer that question, I’ll wait for you.

Good, done? Now count how many regurgitated buzzwords flavoured your answer? You know: “charisma”, “vision”, “empathy”, “confidence”, “authentic”, etc… Any less than ten and I’d be worried that you’ve not been subjected to enough leadership courses.

I jest!

Buzzwords and condensed concepts are vital to communicating what good leadership is and can be, in the context of lectures, seminars, speaker sessions and the like. In those environments, they are brilliant tools used to give hard-hitting weight to the crucial leadership concepts we should all be aspiring to integrate into our own methods.

But…outside the classroom, once the YouTube video has ended, once you’ve finished the article and those buzzwords have exploded in your mind, sending beautiful shrapnel of knowledge into the deepest reaches of your cortex, when you’re alone with your thoughts, and I ask you to define what makes YOU a good leader, your answer need not be an attempt to string together as many of those buzzwords as possible. There’s no one here for you to impress, no one here to convince…there’s just you and the opportunity to truly and genuinely analyse yourself.

We all have to be leaders at some point in the day, some point in our lives, some stage in our careers, this isn’t a debate about whether leadership is genetically hard-wired or something that can be built from scratch. The process of answering that initial question should be a deep and silent reflection on what you are good at and what you are bad at as a leader. I promise you, doing this with the greatest integrity is a powerful exercise that can give new purpose to all those buzzwords, allowing you to analytically leverage them in your areas of strength and weakness.

I’ve just started the organisational behaviour course as part of my MBA and the opening analysis of leadership vs. management has already given me much to ponder and leaves me in no doubt that this will again be an immensely satisfying and useful course, the lessons of which I will certainly use to adapt my professional outlook and behaviour. But before action, surely one must know where they currently stand? So, if you’re in a similar position or are just reading this out of curiosity, wanting to develop your leadership skills, I urge you to answer my initial question again…just minus the buzzwords.

So, let’s try this again.

Quiet your mind, think about how and when you’ve led people, think about those times when things went well and you felt invigorated by the process and the times when you may instead have felt like handing over the captain’s armband to someone else. Think about the types of people you consistently work well with and the types with which friction seems to come too easily. Think about the activities that come naturally to you and those that you struggle with. Really think about it, you as a leader, no buzzwords though, dig deeper than that. Write things like: “on project X, when I was guiding my team through the tendering process, I was really good at communicating the type of relationship I wanted us to have with our potential contractor and that led to a great outcome”; “when I was on that trip with my friends and we couldn’t decide what we wanted to do for New Year’s, why was it so hard to come to an agreement that we all felt happy about, was it because Y is always so touchy, I seem to struggle with that type” or “over the course of my last five projects, I’ve been really good at setting my initial team up, unifying them around a specific mindset and directing initial processes but have to admit that my interest wanes as the project matures”.

Great, how about throwing in some cutting behavioural analysis, like: “though my leadership track record is very good, I find the self-doubt almost crippling…I wonder if that comes across and if it’s something holding me back” or “I appreciate how people genuinely listen to me and seem to rally around me because of my uncompromising penchant for voicing the concerns of others less confident, even if that negatively marks me out.”

When you’ve searched your mind and uncovered truths you take pride in and others you’d rather not confront, don’t speak it, start to write it down, see what else flows from your pen. It can be as haphazard as you like but it must be painfully honest; don’t worry, only you get to see it and definitely don’t stop until you’ve filled at least a full page with your ramblings.

Fantastic! If you’ve stuck with me this far and are wondering what to do next with the product of your soul searching, then I’ll have to disappoint you and admit to not having a one-size-fits-all answer. There are others more intelligent and learned than I who can guide you through that change process, a lot of whom teach MBA courses. I promise you though, that collage of leadership thought you put to paper is a beautiful starting point, a rough map or sculpture if you like of your current self, to be chiselled and honed into something of your own conscious making, using tools that look remarkably like buzzwords.

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