The 3 core qualities of true leadership

Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 67 we spoke to Larry Robertson, a globally recognised leadership advisor and speaker. 

Larry has more than three decades of experience guiding some of Australia’s most high-profile leaders. He helps current and aspiring leaders around the world be their best and give their most. Larry’s advertising agency, Robertson Burns offers one-on-one or team-focused leadership guidance and training.

In this chat we spoke about what truly makes a great leader.

Want to learn more? You can read or listen to our chat with Larry Robertson on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.

Authored by Larry Robertson, Founder of Robertson Burns.

As I reflect on my own leadership experience and those with numerous leaders across different countries, I’ve learnt a great deal, particularly in the context of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). My journey has taught me that, whether one is steering a small team or a large corporation, the essence of leadership – the who, the why, the where and the how – remains fundamentally the same.

The universal qualities of leadership
The size of a business does not change what makes a leader effective. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some in leadership roles who appear to consider themselves leaders by some divine right, personal entitlement or simply the position they hold. But true leadership is not about status or bossing people around; it’s about engaging and inspiring. Let’s explore what I consider to be the three core qualities of true leadership.

1. Trust – Who really are you?
The first quality revolves around authenticity – your AQ – and the trust that derives from it. A leader’s first role is to establish trust. “Without trust, you’re dust,” as the saying goes. I have seen this to be true in both business and politics, where trust is often lacking. How can you, as a leader, be felt to be trustworthy? By being authentic, truthful, transparent and, when required, even vulnerable in what you say and do.

2. Respect – How do you lead?
The second quality is about respecting those around you – your EQ: Empathy is a critical aspect of emotional intelligence. As a leader, you must appreciate and value your team, remembering that people don’t have to follow you – they choose to. Empathy is about engaging, listening actively, understanding what motivates and concerns others, and genuinely considering how your ideas and decisions affect them.

3. Purpose – Where are you going?
Clarity of purpose is the third quality of true leaders, what I refer to as the quality of intent – your IQ. It’s about defining why you do what you do, and focusing on where you’re headed and what success looks like. And how you will achieve it together.

Leading vs managing
With these fundamental qualities, there’s a subtle yet profound difference between managing and leading. All good leaders can manage, but not all managers can lead. It’s often said that “managers do things right” while “leaders do the right thing.”

I touch on the difference between leadership and management in my book, WHY listen to, work with and follow YOU? The 3 Qualities of True Leaders (Profile Books). In essence, management is about stuff – the measurable and quantifiable. We’ve all been brought up to manage since we were small kids – to tidy our room, run a bit faster, get a better mark on our school tests and so forth. Even in our professional lives, success is measured by being promoted or getting a reward. Leadership, however, is about purpose, people and change – inspiring others and guiding them towards a shared vision.

While we shouldn’t lose sight of the measurable, we should also focus on leading. I often say, “If no one’s listening to you, no one’s following you; and if no one’s following you, you’re not leading.” This brings me to the core question of my book: “Why should they?” Leadership isn’t just about competence – the what and the when. Leadership is about clarity and humanity – who you are and how you’re perceived each day – your authenticity, reflecting your character, your values, humour, resolve and courage.

Another key element of authenticity is confidence paired with humility. Do you really believe in what you’re doing and why? At the same time, do you acknowledge you may not be the smartest or most qualified one in the room? In my case, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with people who are not smarter than me. The secret to being a good leader is making the people around you feel safe to speak up, challenge and contribute their thoughts. What’s sometimes referred to as psychological safety.

Leaders need to be consistent. If we don’t follow through on our commitments and accept accountability for the outcomes whether good or bad, people will start to lose trust in us; again, trust is the cornerstone of leadership.

So, while good management is always necessary, leadership gives a sense of purpose and direction. Good leaders constantly ask themselves “Who are we (team, business) and who am I – my role? Why do we exist? Where are we going? And how will we get there?”. Meanwhile, management focuses on the task at hand and the required resources and progress – the what and the when. Leaders should ask themselves these six questions, in this order, at least once each day.

So, why listen to, work with and follow you?
Throughout my career, I’ve encountered numerous professionals in the business world. While they were well-qualified, competent and hardworking, many lacked a crucial element: they were not inspiring. This lack of excitement and passion in their approach made me question their ability to motivate others. Why would anyone want to work with or buy from someone who isn’t enthusiastic about what they do?

Reflecting on my own journey, I realised that I had been fortunate to be surrounded by leaders who were not just in leadership roles but were truly inspiring. They were energised, engaging, credible and, at times, unconventional. They connected with, challenged and encouraged those around them while exuding a spirit of generosity. This led me to wonder: How could I help others become more effective as true leaders?

The challenge lay in helping those in leadership roles be more enthusiastic, empathetic, and purposeful in their communication. Helping leaders to understand that their people have choices; they can choose not to follow or even listen. They can seek employment elsewhere or buy from others. Communicating is 80% of a leader’s job. For you to lead effectively, you need to engage with your team in a way that’s clear, purposeful and uplifting. Remember, if no one’s listening, you’re not leading. You need to give them a reason to be led by you. This starts by recognising that you are there to help them succeed, not the other way around.

Finding your purpose
Leadership is a skill that can be developed. It starts with self-awareness and extends to engaging and understanding others. It’s then about guiding their thoughts towards a certain perspective or goal. This process involves three stages: getting people to think about what you’re sharing with them, feel good about it and then act on it – essentially covering the spectrum from informing, to influencing, to inspiring them.

Each one of us is capable of engaging someone in our daily lives, whether it’s a friend at a pub, a colleague at work, or a life partner. To succeed in the workplace, we need to employ the same underlying skills that we use in these personal interactions – building mutual trust, respect and purpose, So, effective leadership is not an elite concept that’s taught exclusively in business schools. It’s something that we already practice in many areas of our lives every day. But first, you need to find your purpose.

Discovering your purpose can be a gradual process. It starts with understanding who you are and what makes you tick – your essence or brand, what you represent and the difference you can make. Imagine an electrician, for example. On the surface, his job might seem to be about earning a living by providing electrical services, but his real purpose is far beyond that. He sees himself playing a critical role in making daily life easier, making sure essential systems around the home and office run smoothly. His job is more than completing a task and issuing an invoice; it’s about enabling the aspirations of others.

Similarly, a hairdresser does more than just cut hair. Their deeper purpose is to enhance their client’s self-esteem and confidence. Even a simple haircut can help a person feel better about themselves.

These examples underscore that every profession and trade, no matter how ordinary they may seem, carries a deeper purpose. It’s not just about performing a task efficiently. It’s about understanding the impact of that task on others’ lives and well-being. Once you understand your purpose, you can ignite a sense of purpose in each of your team members, leading them to see the value they bring to the bigger picture. Finding your purpose will help you to express your personal IQ, the third true leadership quality that will encourage people to listen to, work with and follow you!

True leadership is founded on the three core qualities of mutual trust, respect and purpose. To succeed as a leader, your challenge is to reveal and share your authenticity (AQ), your empathy (EQ) and your intent (IQ) with those around you every time, irrespective of the pressure or the situation. When you do, they will believe you, they will feel valued by you and they will come with you