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The Shocking Truth About Being A Great Leader

There is an age old question – “Are leaders born that way?”

The practical truth is that leaders aren’t born.

Neither are teachers, athletes, politicians, salespeople, and the list goes on. Babies are born. The rest is developed over time.

Leading in the Trenches

I have had the privilege of leading intimate teams of 5 or less, through to virtual and voluntary workforces of 300+. I never thought of myself as a leader, but as I reflect back over time, I can see that the signs were there all the time.

When I started my first full-time role in the UK, I joined a team in the Electronic Production department of my company. Entering as a humble Electronic Test Engineer, I found out at the interview stage that the department head had been promoted. I would report into him until a replacement was found.

As it turned out, over the next six weeks, candidates rode a merry-go-round through the office door – unable to secure the role.

Leadership Growth

When I was approached about taking over as Head of Department, I was chuffed (that’s English for honoured!). If the truth be told, I was quite cocky about being selected. But this turned out to be a baptism of fire.
I tell you this not to impress you, but to impress upon you that the first lesson I learned is that title isn’t an indication of leadership… My biggest lesson came to roost when one of my employees came to see me with a gripe that he was being paid 50 pence per hour less than his colleagues on the shop floor.

To me, that seemed a trivial issue to address. In the bigger scheme of things, I put it to one side and ignored his request for action. A month later, I was summoned to the HR Director’s office and told that I had received a personal grievance from the same employee. Really??! Over 50 pence an hour?

The shocking truth about being a leader is that you automatically inherit X times the problems when you become a leader (where X = the number of employees that report through to you).

As a leader you have to understand that you now represent every person that is in your department. That means that everything that distracts them and becomes an issue, is escalated up to you.

What It Takes to be a Great Leader

To be a great leader you have to know how to connect with your people. John Maxwell says that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

  • If you want to make a difference and be known as ‘one of the bosses people remember working for’, look at the following tips and see how many of them you can implement:
  • Get to know the names of your employees spouse and children
  • Take time to have regular One-on-One’s with your direct reports (weekly is ideal although monthly is a minimum)
  • Arrange for ‘Skip-Level meetings’ (when you have time with your direct reports team members)
  • Improve your communication skills (both written and oral)
  • Produce a weekly update newsletter to your staff & personalise it (you want to be seen as a human being and not a dictator)

What I Learned About Leadership

What did I learn about the experience of having an employee place a personal grievance on me?

Once I calmed down from the shock, I took some advice from my Director of HR and called my team into a meeting. With the doors to the department closed to give us some privacy, I proceeded to tell the team that I had stuffed up. I explained that a member of staff had approached me to enquire about the pay inequality between departments and trades and I had brushed it off with a level of arrogance.

I now realised that the issue was valid and needed attention.

The next step in my process is the one that attracted the most attention – I personally apologised to the employee in front of his peers and my direct reports.

After opening the floor to questions, I closed the meeting and then entered my office where I sat down at my desk.

A few moments later Brian, my right-hand person, entered my office and shut the door behind him. He was approaching his sixtieth birthday – I had barely cleared my 21st! Brian looked me in the eye and told me the following – “In over 40 years in the workforce, this is the first time I’ve heard my boss apologise for anything. That must have taken some courage, Elias!”

I told Brian that it wasn’t courage. It was simply the right thing to do.


As I reflect on this experience 30 years on in my career, I can safely say that it takes humility to be a great leader. If you want to leave a legacy, you have to learn how to become approachable and relatable.
If you can get those two attributes right, you’re on your way to becoming a great leader!

Nsanz GSF