The difference between a strong leader and a weak leader

Across almost 50 years in business, I’ve learned to spot a strong leader from a weak one. Here’s my insight: 

Strong leaders must have vision, creativity and, most importantly, the ability to influence others to support them in the challenges of moving an organisation into unchartered territory. Good leadership is about taking ventures forward and finding new avenues where the business can evolve and prosper.

Virgin Orbit Richard Branson team

Poor leadership typically tends to be static, much more about protecting the status quo and resting on laurels. This ‘don’t rock the boat’ approach may have been a viable business model 20 years ago, but at the frenetic pace of business today it is no longer an option. To stand still today is to go backwards – quickly. 
 
While I have found that outstanding leadership tends to come in a huge range of packages, poor leadership usually displays a lot of common denominators. There are also a lot of contradictions, however. For instance, how would one rate a leader with the reputation for being ‘Such a great guy – he never gets in anybody’s face and just lets us all get on with our jobs’? 

Such an individual could either be a highly skilled delegator or just someone who has no stomach for confrontation. While few people – myself included – genuinely enjoy confrontational situations when they arise, dealing with them in a timely manner is an important part of effective leadership. 

Richard Branson stern talking

Some leaders are frequently guilty of shying away from anything that might result in a disagreement. They might think that this will make them more likeable to their employees; or perhaps they don’t have sufficient level of confidence in their own technical understanding of the problem to be able to stand their ground; or they’d simple prefer to turn a blind eye in the hope that by ignoring the issue it will over time somehow manage to sort itself out.  
 
Unfortunately, failing to confront a problem while it’s at the smouldering stage more often than not leads to it becoming a fully fledged fire that is much harder to extinguish and can do a lot of long-term damage. 
 
Another relatively common confrontation avoidance technique with weak leaders is to always have someone else on hand to take care of the dirty work on their behalf. This will typically involve having someone in senior management handle anything that could damage their reputation. Is this an example of skilful delegation? I think not. 

Richard Branson Australia Team Champagne drink

There seems to be a lot of confusion around the subtle but critical difference between delegation and relegation. Simply stated, delegation is handing on the responsibility for a situation together with the authority to resolve it. Relegation is simply pushing a problem away, but without including the power to really do anything much about it – except perhaps to shoulder the blame. 
 
One of the most common mistakes of poor leaders is the inability to understand the difference between these two ways of working. In the same way that this kind of leader is skilled at relegating blame, they are usually very good at holding their people accountable – everyone, that is, except for themselves.     

Richard Branson and the Virgin Sport team in New York

Richard Branson and the Virgin Sport team in New York

For more tips on how to be a modern-day leader check out virgin.com’s Leadership series.

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