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Top five leadership tips for emerging leaders

One of the things I am often asked on Roffey Park programmes is something, along the lines of “what makes a good leader?” It is of course, an impossible question. Leadership, for me, is more a function than a role.  Whatever we do, there is always an element of leadership needed – even if it is only of yourself.  So leaders come in all metaphorical shapes and sizes and there no absolutely correct way.

Leadership tips

But as this year draws to a close and the new year beckons, I find myself in contemplative mood. Here I set out my top five leadership tips gleaned over many years of being a leader and developing those who would label themselves as leaders.

Leadership Tip 1: Make time for leadership

I see a lot of leaders who seem not to be able to fit leadership into their day job.  I guess in the fight between the urgent and the important the former tends to be the winner.  The problem is that urgent jobs tend to be about the operational (the need to complete a report on time, the need to get the project completed etc) rather than the strategic (where are we heading, how can we best get there etc).   Now, I would never argue that meeting goals and targets is not important in any organisation.  But if we are not careful, we can simply spend so much time doing that we lose sight of whether we are doing the right things.

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How do we overcome this?  Well, one of the best pieces of advice I was given is to schedule time for leadership in the same way that I would for everything else.  This might mean taking proper time out (once a month or so) for reviewing what has happened, comparing that with the plan and testing whether the direction we have set is till right.  I call this balcony time.  Of course, this does not need to be done in isolation and it is a great opportunity to involve your team in creating a common strategic direction.

Leadership Tip 2: Get the balance right

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Leadership (and management) is often about balancing tensions.  The tension between strategy and operations mentioned above is one but there are more. Here are some that leaders face (from Binney et al 2005):

  • See possibilities versus Acknowledging limits
  • Being Strong versus being vulnerable
  • Keeping control versus Letting go
  • Accelerating progress versus letting go

I am sure that you could add your own. The point is that focusing on one side or the other is unlikely to work in the long term and it is easy to fix one problem only to create another often bigger problem in it place. 

The solution is not necessarily to look for problems that need to be fixed but rather to understand that tensions will always exist and that organisational life is a balancing act.  The leader’s role is to find the pivot point.

Leadership Tip 3: Not knowing the answer is okay

For many years I believed in the fairy tale of the correct answer.  Most of the time there is no such thing. There are myriad of variables, internal and external, that will impact on the organisation and thousands of possible ways forward.  There isn’t a right one.

The best I can do is to forget certainty and make a decision.  I am not advocating a desperate gamble based only on intuition rather I think it is vital to get ideas from the widest possible sample. But ultimately there will not be a right answer and waiting for certainty will only lead to procrastination and more uncertainty.

My advice is think like a scientist.  Gather data so that you can come up with a hypothesis based on the best evidence you have and then run the experiment. And then review. Was the hypothesis right?  What adjustments need to be made? What is the next experiment?

Leadership Tip 4: Be flexible

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As I suggested at the beginning there is no lack of advice out there about what style a leader should take – courageous, conciliatory, a visionary, a referee. Whatever labels are used, the point is that these are right and, at the same time, none of them are.  If you are always visionary to the point when you lose sight of task, you are in trouble.  If you are building a new team from scratch your approach may need to be very different from taking a mature team through a change. You are not fully in control of all the variables and your leadership style will always need to fit the current circumstance. The trick is to be aware of what happening around you and amend your style based on that rather than the expecting the universe to fit around you.

Leadership Tip 5: Expect to fail

Gervase Bushe talks about the horrors on competence compulsion.  This is the need in us to feel like we are doing a good job and for others to recognise this.  Nothing earth-shattering in that except that when we are learning, we can feel and look less than competent.  The impact of this?  Well, for those in the grip of competence compulsion, it may lead us to play it safe, do what we have always done and not grow in the ways we might. The only antidote for this is to create a situation for yourself and others where learning, and therefore failure, is seen as the key competence of leadership.

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So there you have it.  Five leadership tips that are, of course subjective, but have broadly stood me in good stead. But if you forced me to pick one idea that might have the biggest impact, it would be to always remember that our ability to grow must be based on continuous learning.

As we move into 2021, I would therefore encourage you to reflect on your own leadership top tips.  What has been your biggest learning?


Living leadership: A practical guide for ordinary heroes:

George Binney, Gerhard Wilke and Colin Williams, FT Prentice Hall, 2005.

Clear Leadership: Sustaining Real Collaboration and Partnership at Work:

Gervase R Bushe Davies-Black/Nicolas Brealey publishing 2009

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