In the last few days, I have heard stories from and about all kinds of leaders. I have heard about ignorant and hurtful leadership, of confusing and missing-the-point leadership, but also of wonderfully inspiring and caring leadership. In time I would like to share more about all of this, but for now I want to dwell on the latter, as this was truly a gift in my week. It also made me wonder, especially at this time of year, if I could describe twelve gifts of leadership that I (rather than your true love) might give to you.

Listen beautifully

Listening is not about letting someone talk, or offering tea and sympathy. It isn’t about having a rattling good conversation, or trying to jolly someone along. It isn’t just saying that you have “an open door”. The purpose of listening beautifully is to create a personal, calm and kind space for someone else to be heard by you. A peaceful place devoid of all distractions where feelings may rest. In such a place we all learn to trust and grow.

Sometimes turn your hierarchy upside down

In work we tend to spend most of our time with our direct reports and those we report to. Structure is important, but hierarchy can limit access rather than facilitate it. We should therefore make time to be with different people, to make different connections in our world of work, to learn new stories and see more clearly the talent and goodness all around us.

Trust your teams

No one comes to work to fail. Everyone hopes to succeed. It follows that nearly all failure is a failure of leadership. If we have recruited well, communicated clearly and resourced fairly, we have the building blocks in place for our teams to succeed; now we must trust our teams to do the right thing, because they almost certainly will. Growth and innovation, creativity and kindness will happen when we free people to make their difference, rather than constraining them to do as they are told.

Know that no matter what you say, it is your actions that define your values

Leadership is not easy, and there are so many different ways to be effective and to succeed (and to fail), but if we want to be remembered as a leader, it is as well to know that there are only two types of memorable leader, those who we would rather forget and those who we hope will remember us too.

Involve your colleagues, don’t just include them

Even with the best of intentions we can be inclusive and still leave people feeling uncertain of their role, their value, and their right to belong. We must go beyond inclusion and allow people to feel involved. A well intended written policy can encourage inclusion, but only leaders can make people feel involved.

Make your purpose to make a difference to peoples’ lives 

I spoke to someone this week who lifted my heart. For some months she had been negotiating a pay review for her team. She had been in her leadership role for only a year, but she knew her team was underpaid. She went out on a limb, fought her case and prevailed. One of her colleagues receiving her pay award said that the difference it would make to her was “literally life-changing.” How wonderful is that? I would love for us all to be able to put such moments on our CVs; they would say so much more about us than just another job title.

Make looking after your mental health an example for everyone to follow 

Even if we do not feel vulnerable, some in our teams probably will. We must allow space for thoughts and cares and words, but most of all we must show the way and be the example others can follow. We should sometimes leave the office early, take all our holiday entitlement and not send work emails that will intrude on family time. We coach with our actions far more than we will ever coach with our words.

Be open about your weaknesses and ask for help 

The first time I heard my chief executive say he was not sure what to do was the first time I truly respected his role. In work we talk a lot about delegation as a sign of good leadership; while this is true, implicit in delegation is that we know what to do, it’s just that we are too busy to do it. It is even more valuable and important to talk about what we cannot do and to let our teams help us with this too. Breaking the “we know best” infallibility myth of leadership is another true gift.

Talk less but always speak well 

Never be careless with your words. By way of example, I heard this week about a leader challenging her people to “get on the bus or be left behind”. She may have thought it sounded like a rallying call worthy of St Crispin’s Day, but buzzword bingo isn’t leadership. Communication is sometimes an issue even in the best run businesses, but it is always a failure of leadership if we create ambiguity, mistrust, doubt and fear. We do not always have to inspire, it is still truly a gift of leadership if our words are thoughtful, consistent and clear.

Ask how you can help others to thrive 

It is perhaps the most important question a leader ever asks. In my view it is the only question a leader needs to ask. “What do you need from me to help you succeed?”

Celebrate behaviours as well as achievements 

Targets matter of course, but behaviours matter more. If we help to build a culture where people are valued, creative, and productive, where kindness is obvious and where everyone’s story matters, I am certain the numbers will follow. Let’s celebrate the culture we make, not just the business we generate.

Leave well, having made your difference 

When you leave make sure you leave well. It is the last gift that you will share with the teams you have helped to become a vibrant, kind and creative collation of talents fulfilling their potential to make things better. Always leave well.

These are my twelve gifts of leadership, please feel you can open them early and share (although I have kept the receipts in case you don’t like them!)

Take care. Paul xx