The role model at the top

The Life: What qualities do role-model leaders need to possess? Tommy Weir, our leadership expert, speaks with senior executives to find out.

A role-model leader is someone from whom others can learn and scores high on approachability. Illustration by
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While talking with a group of senior executives, I asked them to describe a great leader.

Several said a great leader is a role model. While the others did not use this exact phrase, they certainly alluded to the idea.

So what does a role model leader look like?

Some said the person is someone you aspire to be like - a leader you want to copy.

This still seemed vague, though, so I pushed to find out what a role-model leader really looks like.

As senior executives described it, the person should be someone from whom others can learn. It is refreshing that across the region, employees have a very high desire to learn. They crave a leader who teaches them more and who creates an environment in which they can grow. What is ironic is that most organisations still hire technical experts for management and leadership roles, recognising that they need technical skills. While this is true, what organisations need to do more of is to hire leaders from whom others can learn.

It is one thing to "buy" the skills, but hiring a skill-builder has a more useful impact.

Role-model leaders challenge people to be the best, to strive for excellence. They have high standards and are unwilling to back down from them. They are not shy about putting in extra effort to deliver higher quality and to do more than is asked.

Additionally, they recognise the potential in their teams and believe in them. While their pursuit of excellence is a stretch, role-model leaders build their employees' confidence to achieve it.

Such leaders are also approachable. Rather then sitting in the office behind closed doors, they are out with the people. They move beyond saying "I have an open door" and head out to where the troops are working.

Being approachable for role-model leaders does not mean just that people can come to them - which can be intimidating. They go to their teams.

Role-model leaders make hard work and long hours fun, or at least enjoyable. They recognise that when their teams have a good time, they are more willing to put in extra effort. And with extra effort comes greater productivity.

Stodgy leaders, by contrast, argue that "fun" does not belong in the workplace.

Role-model leaders are loyal and protective of their people. Their employees know their leaders "have their back".

Interestingly, when I asked senior executives to describe the anti-role-model leader, this was easy for them. Instantly they dove into what leaders do wrong and were attaching leaders' names to each statement of a shortcoming.

The question is: does the workforce here have enough leaders who can be role models - and on which side of the definition do you fall?

Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, the author of The CEO Shift and the managing director of the Emerging Market Leadership Center