By Sally Percy, below, author of ‘21st Century Business Icons
Leading any business, of any size, is an immensely difficult task. That’s because leadership requires us to achieve often demanding goals while anticipating and managing the behaviours, emotions, and motivations of others. And while there’s a lot written about leadership, sometimes it can hard to know whether – in practice – we’re actually getting it right.
For my book, 21st Century Business Icons, I researched some of the world’s most influential business leaders, with the aim of discovering the secrets to their success.
These are five important traits that they shared:
- A big vision. When it comes to visions, they don’t come much bigger than serial entrepreneur Elon Musk’s dream of putting people on Mars. But what all successful leaders tend to have in common is a very clear vision of what they’re setting out to achieve. Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook with the aim of making the world more open and connected. Whitney Wolfe Herd launched dating app Bumble to challenge antiquated rules around dating and give women the power to make the first move.
- Commitment to empowering others. No one can scale a business entirely on their own. Successful leaders recognise that they need the support of talented people to help them achieve their vision. So, they commit to hiring, retaining and – crucially – empowering the best people they can find. “Have a clear purpose, set a clear direction, but then give people a lane to run in,” is the recommendation of Mette Lykke, CEO of Too Good To Go, a Denmark-based foodtech business, which is on a mission to reduce global food waste. “Make sure to remove any barriers and really set people free. Then, naturally, they will want to have as much impact as they can.”
- Readiness to take calculated risks. Business is generally synonymous with risk-taking, but the key to success is to take calculated risks rather than make wild gambles. Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, believes that while it’s important that both people and businesses know their limits, they should also be prepared to take calculated risks. This is because you can lose first-mover advantage if you wait to have all the answers before you act.
- A willingness to fail. British inventor Sir James Dyson is renowned for his philosophical approach to failure. “Enjoy failure and learn from it,” he has said. “You never learn from success.” Dyson himself has experienced failure countless times. He built and tested more than 5,000 prototypes of his revolutionary bagless vacuum cleaner before he finally produced one that worked. In 2019, he abandoned production of an electric car – despite having invested £500 million in developing it – after reaching the conclusion that it would not be profitable.
- Passion for learning. The world’s most successful leaders tend to have curious minds and a desire to keep learning. They recognise that the more knowledge they have, the better equipped they will be to make important strategic decisions, understand evolving market trends, and identify opportunities for innovation. Zhang Ruimin, founder of Chinese home appliances giant Haier, developed a business strategy that combined traditional Chinese culture with techniques from Western management gurus such as Peter Drucker. Brian Chesky, co-founder of home-sharing platform AirBnb, has closely studied the careers of other successful leaders.
Of course, while impressive leaders often share common characteristics, there will be many differences between them as well. These differences will be evident in their personal values, leadership philosophies, and approach to managing and motivating their teams. While there are many accepted ideas of what constitutes ‘good leadership practice’, the reality is that there is no single, guaranteed blueprint for being a good leader. Most people enhance their leadership practice through the process of trial and error, which is a perfectly natural and normal way to improve. But we can also look to the example of other leaders to learn what we can do better. Good leadership is always a work-in-progress – and there’s no shame in that.
Sally Percy is an experienced business journalist and editor, specialising in leadership and management. She is author of ‘21st Century Business Icons: The Leaders Who Are Changing our World’ (Kogan Page).