A new kind of leadership

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Nick Mackeson-Smith
Nick Mackeson-Smith
Chief Curiosity Officer, Founder and Director
May 29, 2020

What makes a great leader?

For years, I've been pre-occupied with a very simple question: what makes a great leader?

I've observed many leaders, but great ones have been harder to find, and they seem to be becoming more scarce in the workplace. What's caused this leadership drain?

There's been no shortage of articles, TED talks, books, programmes, and new trends telling us what we should do. Yet even with this enormous amount of content available to us, we still seem to have large swathes of leaders with less than overwhelming levels of capability.

When it comes down to it, leaders can't function unless there is someone to lead. Or someone who'll follow. Or whatever. Getting hung up on who serves who and why and where just tangles things up and means that everyone is left pointing the finger at someone else - waiting for and expecting them to take control of something.

So here's the thing. Leadership is about being a good human. That's it. If you need a model, or a formula, or a framework to hang your hat on, then here goes...

Dialogue / Kōrero

First and foremost, leaders need to establish a dialogue. That's a two-way conversation. An exchange of ideas, of values, of beliefs, of fears. The key word in here is exchange. It's not about the leader imparting all of their wisdom to the follower. Far from it - this is about valuing and respecting that every voice carries the same level of importance, and deserves to be heard. Leaders certainly don't need to agree with everything they hear in the dialogue, but the exchange is necessary nonetheless. In New Zealand, we're blessed with a rich cultural heritage, and traditional Whakataukī or proverbs (not fancy business school articles) give us all the instruction we need:

He aha te kai ō te rangatira? He Kōrero, he kōrero, he kōrero.

What is the food of the leader? It is dialogue. It is knowledge. It is communication.

Dialogue and relentless curiosity go hand in hand, so open questions and active listening with an intent to understand are absolute musts.


When something is at stake (a career or a reputation perhaps?!), people tend not to be so free-flowing in their kōrero.

David Maister and Charles Green introduced the trust equation in their book The Trusted Advisor. It's an epic reminder that the old adage "building trust takes time" is complete and utter nonsense. Being deliberate in your intentions and actions can build trust rapidly - even instantly - when genuinely used.

It's so simple. Maximise Credibility. You need to be good at what you do... have something to back up that you know your stuff. Have walked in their shoes and have the stories to prove it. This isn't always about qualifications, or letters after your name (although that works for some people). This is about the stuff you say and do making sense and being in alignment with the role you perform. People say to me "you can't be a leader unless you have strong technical or subject matter expertise". Yep - you are right, it's needed for building trust with your people.

Secondly Maximise Reliability. Follow through on the things you say you'll do. Show up. Be present. Be engaged. Back people around you. Be consistent.

Thirdly Maximise Intimacy. Always gets a giggle from someone when I say it out loud, but it's really about reciprocity under the iceberg. Being vulnerable. Being open about fears, beliefs, experiences, dreams, inspirations. All of it.

And lastly, the bit that trips up most leaders... they forget (or fail) to minimise self-orientation. What that means is, all of the mahi, all of the work, all of the dialogue should be in the service of others. Help them achieve their goals. Help them achieve their aspirations. Help them solve their problems. Make connections for them that will be beneficial to their success. Help them take the credit for their own work (a novel idea for some). It's not about you. It's ALL about them. Deliver through others.

Create space

Growth requires space. Extension requires space. Creativity requires space. Innovation requires space.

Some leaders tend to have an unfortunate habit of occupying the same space that their people want to operate in. It's stifling.

One of the best things a leader can do is to proactively go out of their way to create space. This isn't just about getting out of people's way... this is also about removing other barriers or roadblocks that might come their way, and eliminating distractions or unnecessary work so that they can focus on what they are good at.


There are very few people I'd listen to over and over again, and still be inspired each time I hear them speak. One of the 'magic few' is Brené Brown. Her research touches on so many areas of human psychology - fear, shame, courage, blame, uncertainty, and empathy.  She says:

"Empathy fuels connection"

Connection. At a human level. This isn't about "leave your stuff at the door, you are at work". This isn't "oh I'm sorry to hear that". This is proper care. Actually caring. Actually feeling with someone else. It builds trust, it builds depth, it builds shared experiences, and it builds kōrero. It's the thread that holds it all together.

Simple, right? Let's not overcomplicate things.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

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May 29, 2020
May 29, 2020

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