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A leader's essential actions

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The essential skills and actions of a leader.

There are umpteen versions of the ingredients of leadership. We find that the most useful approach is to offer a short definition and then to describe five essential features. 

A definition

Consistently achieving results beyond expectations by creating a climate in which others can shine.

Applying the definition 

The definition can apply to a leader at any level in a charity or other non profit organisation, not just at the top. So a section head, in charge of a team of five fundraisers, needs to create a climate of enthusiasm and mutual support which enables members of the team to achieve great results – and to feel 'we did it together'.

'Results beyond expectations' – these might be the expectations of the team members, or the organisation as a whole, or stakeholders, etc. 

'In which others can shine' – 'others' primarily means followers (team members) but could also include colleagues in different departments, and perhaps external partners. The phrase “Creating a climate in which others can shine” is taken from Complete Leadership, by Susan Bloch and Philip Whiteley (Pearson Education, 2003).

Key actions

The key actions required to make this happen are:

  1. building trust
  2. demonstrating courage
  3. challenging
  4. providing focus
  5. communicating effectively.

1) Building trust

Management writer Warren Bennis said: “Trust is the one quality that cannot be acquired, but must be earned...without it the leader can’t function”. If colleagues feel that their leader is not trustworthy, they will produce half-hearted performance, and some of the energy which they should be directing towards service users will instead be devoted to watching their backs. 

A role model for values

One of the best ways for a leader - at any level - to build trust is to take the charity’s values seriously and to be a role model for them. Most values are published in the form of abstract nouns such as 'integrity'; a leader must demonstrate what they mean by that. A litmus test is whether the leader is honest about mistakes. A leader who gets something wrong, acknowledges it openly and apologises will gain respect. But as Sally Dyson points out: “Trust is long in the building but short in the dismantling”.

Trust is two-way

A leader has to show trust in the members of their team – for instance by delegating a little further than they are totally confident about. The team members need to show that they have faith in their leader. 

Every member of your team is a unique individual and the great challenge (and privilege) of leadership lies in getting to know each person in the round: not just in their work context but as a whole.

  • "Where there is no trust, sharing knowledge and learning becomes an impossible task. People will naturally continue to do their own thing in a low-trust environment, and maybe pick up the odd tip or idea, but the true potential of knowledge development and learning is only manifest with TEAMWORK, SHARING, and DISCLOSURE."
    Alastair Rylatt, “Learning Unlimited”.  

Source: Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, Arrow Business Books, Sally Dyson, COVER charity, Cass alumna.

2) Demonstrating courage

Charisma is sometimes regarded as a vital component of leadership. But it is neither realistic nor necessary to expect every leader to have the magnetic personality of Nelson Mandela, Geraldine Peacock or Winston Churchill. What is inescapable, however, is for a leader to be courageous.

Firm action

A clear opportunity for this comes when a leader takes over a team. Often one member of the team will have been 'getting away with it' under the previous leader – producing barely adequate performance, or being selfish rather than helping others, or indulging in harmful gossip. The leader must immediately show that they are not going to tolerate this. Firm action to bring the offender into line sends a clear message to the whole team.

You also need to be prepared to stand up and be counted on behalf of your team. If they are being unfairly treated by more senior management, it is up to you to intervene on their behalf. 

Taking unpopular decisions

Leadership is not a popularity contest, and there will almost certainly be times when you have to take a decision which is unpopular but is in the best interests of those concerned in the long term. 

An example is redundancy: decisions about cutting posts have to be made on objective grounds without sentiment entering in.  Having made the tough choices, you then deal with the casualties in the most compassionate possible way, going well beyond the legal requirements. 

3) Challenging

Part of a leader’s job is to create a culture of teamwork but this does not mean a suffocatingly cosy relationship with no signs of dissent. Over time, an effective leader steadily raises the bar. The annual review of performance is a good time to take stock of how far the team members have travelled.

This does not mean endless pressure to perform; rather that the leader encourages individuals: “You can do it, I have confidence in you”.

Team meetings should be characterised by lively debate, with people’s views being challenged. But at the end of the discussion everyone must give firm commitment to the decision – you are not there to run an endless talking shop. 

  • "Dissent needs to come out into the open so that trust can be nurtured.  Without proper discussion and debate and encouragement, people have a tendency to avoid such difficult but vital discussions or turn them into underground feuds."
    - a charity manager

Because by definition challenge pushes people beyond their previous boundaries, it needs to be balanced by support. If you get to know each member of your team as an individual, you will sense their boundaries and know how closely to watch how they are responding to the challenges. 

4) Providing focus

In today’s hurly-burly environment it is only too easy for each person to lose track of priorities; a symptom to watch for is people constantly dealing with the urgent and endlessly postponing the important. 


One of the greatest contributions a leader can make is to focus people on a small number of overriding priorities, and to show how one team making headway on these has a beneficial knock-on effect on other teams. The concept of the 'one-minute manager', constantly moving round, talking to people, lubricating the flow of information between departments, reflects this.

A manager in a distribution company was so passionate about his own project that he gave the instruction: “this project is so important, we can't let things that are more important interfere with it!”


You need to raise people’s sights beyond today’s actions and provide a compelling vision which is worth striving for, but realistic. If you have consulted your people in the process of shaping the vision, it will be all the stronger: not your personal hobbyhorse but an aim worth pursuing energetically. This is especially relevant in a charity, because your organisation exists not for the benefit of its staff and volunteers but for end users who desperately need your services. 

The ultimate test of a leader’s ability to provide focus is when a crisis arises – perhaps a crisis of funding, or a very public mistake.

You need to help people see this in perspective and show resilience. When Christine Gilbert was chief executive of Tower Hamlets Council, she called it “demonstrating unswerving commitment and confidence”.

5) Communicating effectively

There are more methods of communicating at work available to us than ever before. A survey showed over 30, in three broad groups: face to face, written, and using technology. 

It is particularly tempting to go overboard on the hi-tech methods, but a good leader will strike a balance. It’s worth jotting down the pros and cons of each method: for instance emails are great for short and simple messages, but they can get submerged in the flood and you have to be careful that their tone doesn’t seem abrupt. If you have built trust within your team you will be able to reduce the number of messages which are copied to all and sundry.

Four dimensions to your communication methods

Consider your communication methods in four dimensions: downwards, upwards, across the organisation and externally. It is worth checking with key external stakeholders what are their preferred methods.


Communicating is about listening as well as talking. If you listen hard to what people find frustrating and take action to reduce these frustrations, your team’s morale will be boosted.


Meetings can take up a huge amount of valuable time. 

  • Use a checklist for making your meetings short and sharp.
  • Any minutes which have been taken must be issued within 48 hours.
  • It may not be necessary for everyone to attend the whole meeting. 
  • Colleagues can represent each other to keep the size of the meeting manageable.

Decisions and change

Consulting people before you take decisions can gain commitment – but make the boundaries of consultation absolutely clear: is your proposal open only to fine-tuning or are you willing to consider other options?

When you are putting across any kind of change, people will understand it better if you use more than one method but containing exactly the same message – and it is the 'Why' more than the 'What' which will influence people’s reactions.

Page last edited Jul 05, 2017
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