Leading responsibly – by APCO’s Faten Al Masri

By Faten Al Masri, chief client officer, APCO Worldwide. 

There are no shortcuts to becoming a leader. And there is certainly no silver bullet to becoming an inspirational one. In an interesting role reversal – or call it karma – is that the very people being led who get to decide whether leaders are inspirational or not. 

Without wanting to sound too much like a Marvel superhero mentor, the first step to successful leadership is recognising that you have a responsibility to empower the people around you. That starts by fostering an inclusive culture, an open forum for discussion that encourages cognitive diversity. 

Getting everyone to invest in your end goal is crucial to bringing people together and getting them to pull in the same direction. And you can’t do that unless you create an environment where everyone is encouraged to contribute – their ideas, their perspective, their knowledge. 

This point is especially important given the shifting geopolitical and socioeconomic climate we are faced with today. The challenges leaders face as they seek to navigate this context are as multi-layered and complex as each of the people they are leading. By harnessing your team’s skills and experiences, you’re better equipped to formulate a well-rounded strategic approach to delivering on your task, your strategy, or your mandate.

Having worked alongside some great and gifted leaders in the public and private sectors for more than 25 years, I’ve learned that the best leaders are those who recognise that they don’t have all the answers. This little but significant piece of self-awareness goes a long way. Instead of constantly looking inwards for a source of inspiration, great leaders will look outwards: to their teams and to others with different perspectives that challenge their own. They listen. They analyse. And then they set the direction.

This approach provides decision-makers with two key things. First, it demonstrates a clear trust in the people around them. Trust, when reciprocated, is an enduring foundation for successful leadership. And second, it covers blind spots. No one person can see everything from every angle. By bringing multiple perspectives together, leaders can harness the power of cognitive diversity to cancel out the gaps that might otherwise foil even the most perfect of plans.

Of course, this perspective that I am able to speak from comes after two decades of seeking the right formula. Getting to this point relies on leaders taking a proactive approach to honing some key traits. They include:

●     Nurturing: Having the mindset that you are training the next generation of leaders and understanding that your example sets the precedent for how your team perform as leaders of the future. Leaders need to mentor team members and make them feel secure in a culture of growth and empathy within their organisation. They lead by example, and that is what differentiates them as leaders from managers.

●     Expertise: An inspirational leader knows that charisma is not enough to lead. They know their industry inside out. Their technical knowledge is second to none. This can be easy to forget in leadership or managerial positions, but it is absolutely critical to demonstrate that you can walk the talk. 

●     Humility: A well-rounded leader brings their authentic selves to the table. This means bringing your hobbies and passions into what you do and connecting them to your work. Understand the appropriate balance between work and life integration, and the transition between both will feel seamless. 

●     Future-oriented: The ability to identify strong talent and future leaders is crucial. You should always be preparing someone else to take over your job. Creating a succession path for emerging leaders, rather than prioritising and protecting your own titles and objectives, is imperative to delivering a successful outcome.

How can you develop these qualities?

The most impactful thing you can do is give each component of your work the time it deserves. It’s easy to get sucked into the day-to-day activities and focus all our attention on the big meeting of the day. But when you step back and direct your attention more strategically, you will nurture both the goals of your organisation as well as the people around you.

This can translate to making sure you give thoughtful feedback to your team, acknowledging work well done publicly, correcting privately, and knowing when to step back and give them room to solve problems on their own. You have to be prepared to break a few eggs if you want your team to make omelettes.

Lastly, never stop reading and forming your opinions. You were chosen as a leader because you are good at what you do. It is important that you remain a thought leader. This requires understanding the landscape and context of your work beyond your company’s mission. Continuously learning is important to your building your expertise and enhancing your agility. Both of which have a powerful trickle-down effect on your team.

Leadership is often misconstrued to mean “meeting your KPIs” when in fact true leadership is the quintessential win-win formula for employees and employers.

Everything I have outlined above goes beyond delivering on a communications strategy or a public sector mandate. It is about enabling people to transform themselves –not only at work but also personally. It is about inspiring employees to grow within a team towards a united goal, improving themselves, and their teams along with them. When more countries, workplaces and people understand this, we will see positive change on a global scale.