What makes a good leader?

by Craig Nudelman

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) was delivered on 10 February 2022, and although it is one of the most important events in the South African political calendar, I was reluctant to watch it.

Given Covid’s impact on every aspect of South African society, I knew that from unemployment to corruption there was no good story to tell.

When all was said and done, the President did use the speech (all two hours of it!) to give some insight into what he would do. His remarks about the failures of his Cabinet, corruption, the energy crisis, and the maladministration of our ports and railway systems showed he acknowledged what has gone wrong. But now, the President needs to show decisive leadership in how to correct these issues. This was his sixth SONA, so he can expect much debate over his leadership, especially going into the ANC’s elective conference in December.

Recently, I was accepted into the Nahum Goldman Fellowship’s Network Leadership Seminar, where I and eleven other leaders in global Jewry, from Melbourne to Mexico City, will embark on a year-long programme where we’ll learn how to lead effectively. The first session happened to be the very same evening as SONA; it seemed bashert that examining leadership was the name of the game that evening. In that first session, we looked at what the Torah and Mishnah say about being a leader. We examined Moshe’s leadership style at the beginning of his journey as leader of the Israelites after crossing the Sea of Reeds. Also under examination were the seven characteristics with which judges should be endowed. These were wisdom, humility, reverence, disdain of gain, love of truth, loved by all, and a man (now person) of good reputation. However, how do we objectively judge whether a leader has these qualities? Also, are these qualities with which we are born, or are they learnt?

These characteristics of a good leader are still applicable thousands of years later. We see these qualities laid out in contemporary articles and papers on leadership and what makes a good leader. There are so many leadership courses and articles about being a good leader, be they of a business, organisational, or philanthropic nature, and yet we still want to find out how we can improve our leadership qualities. In fact, if you look up ‘good leadership qualities’ on Google, there are 1,920,000,000 results. So let’s look at just some of the highlights.

The Northeastern University in the US has a Graduate Programme in Leadership, which ‘prepares graduates for the challenges and opportunities associated with leading in a global world’. Brian Eastwood, a journalist and leadership strategist who assists with the programme, uses the findings of Teresa Goode, the associate teaching professor for the programme, in which he speaks about five qualities of effective leaders. The first is that the individual should be self-aware and “prioritise personal development”. Emotional intelligence is key to being a successful leader, and one should focus on being open to criticism, adaptable to more emotive situations, and resilient. This can be achieved by taking responsibility for any mistakes that you may have made along the way, and not being afraid to admit you’ve been wrong. Mistakes are inevitable — it’s how you handle your mistakes that is important.

It’s not just yourself that you should focus on. You also need to help develop others within your team through delegation, mentoring, or coaching. Leaders look at individuals’ unique skill sets and backgrounds. As Eastwood writes, you must “give the team members both the tools and the space to build trust among each other.” He also writes that a team leader must be empathetic. This is also a key point that Emma Seppälä writes in the Harvard Business Review, where she asks how we should react when one of our team members makes a mistake or does not perform well. She suggests that we should be compassionate and use the mistake to coach, instead of responding with some form of punishment such as reprimanding your employee.

Other leadership skills are to think out-of-the-box and look at innovative ways in which the the organisation is heading. The idea of a flexible and open mindset comes to the fore, where a leader must be willing to try new ideas enthusiastically. This will filter down to the team who will respond creatively, and bring all kinds of ideas to the table. However, a leader must balance this with making informed decisions and not be reckless in the brainstorming process. If that happens, you risk making unethical or inappropriate decisions that could affect the values of the company or even people within your team.

The final quality of effective leadership, according to Eastwood, follows on from ethical and civic-minded actions, where leaders must “practice effective cross-cultural communication.” In an ever-increasing globalised world, we have to be aware of the differences in cultures and how we speak and act around others. Using concise language which is easy to understand, and acknowledging how emails, texts, and social media are nuanced is key to being not only a good leader but communicating well in general.

When we look at our leaders, from the President to our direct line managers, it is important to see where they can improve. We can also reflect on how we can grow on our own leadership journeys. I am excited to keep on learning to be a better communal and professional leader, not only through the lens of the 21st century but also through our Jewish texts which are still relevant thousands of years later.

• Published in the PDF edition of the March 2022 issue – Click here to get it.

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