Debating the qualities of strong leaders

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Summit meant to inspire future leaders

Brant News

Strong leaders are good listeners, effective communicators, emotionally intelligent, have a strong vision, surrounded by a great team, inspirational and confident, agreed the panel members of a leadership summit.

But are leaders born or can people become great leaders?

County of Brant chief administrative officer Paul Emerson, Brock University Professor Dr. David Segel and consultant and former CAO Michael Fenn weighed in on the subject at a summit for the Future Ready Leadership training program hosted by Mohawk College Enterprise, Brant and County of Norfolk on Wednesday.

"A good leader needs to have vision or at least be aware of the corporate vision," Emerson said to an audience of a few dozen at Burford Community Centre. "Everyone has a boss, so everyone must be accountable to someone. A leader is still part of a team. They are not above anyone."

Emerson said any leader, no matter how much power they might have, answers to shareholders, voters or someone with a vested interest in an organization or business's success.

Segel wanted the spectators of the summit to understand that he wasn't speaking from experience as a leader, but as the author of a book based on studying the careers and the staff of municipal CAOs across Canada, and what makes them successful.

Segel says he found strong leaders "have a high emotional intelligence … the ability to judge people," and are good communicators, but most importantly are "good listeners." It's an insight Segel said he took more from talking to staff members who felt that good listening skills are what distinguished good from poor leaders.

Segel learned from his research that passing the buck down through bureaucracy doesn't work, yet at the same time he found successful CAOs must acknowledge they can't be experts on every aspect of running a municipality.

"If you assemble a good team around you, you don't have to know all the details," Segel said. "The team assembled sends a significant message about the leader."

Fenn seemed to agree with that idea, calling good leaders the "glue that binds resources together."

He restated the need for good communication skills, which should translate to the ability to market ideas to staff and the public.

"People need confidence in you personally, not just the power of your position," Fenn said. "If you can't build coalition, you are not going to be a successful leader."

"Communication is good, but the delivery of ideas is far more important. People expect you to live as you talk."

Segel said there is no quality on the list the three men had come up with that can't be developed.

Fenn agreed, saying that leadership can be learned, but not to confuse it with celebrity or notoriety such as that of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Emerson disagreed, however, saying that not everyone necessarily has the raw skills to be a strong leader.

"I think you can improve on those skills, but that won't necessarily turn you into a good leader," he said. "Can you learn emotional intelligence? I'm not so sure."

Emerson said his two leadership mentors had a solid core of values in place before taking on leadership roles.

"Being the most senior in a group or a networker might get you up the ladder, but it won't make you a good leader," he said.

Emerson conceded it might be a combination of raw skill and the willingness to learn that makes a strong leader.

"Developing into a leader is not easy, but I think people can improve," Segel responded.

Fenn said he prepared for leadership by watching how successful leaders conduct themselves. He noted they were "often quiet" and "led from behind."

Emerson said he learned as much as he could about an organization, networked, volunteered and hoped someone would notice his efforts.

Segel added that the successful leaders he has studied built not only on their strengths, but their weaknesses as well.

"The leaders I watched didn't pretend to be something they are not," he said.

While some motivated employers by being "warm and fuzzy," others were more task oriented and motivated staff by getting them involved in specific tasks.

What Segel found was that the staff members responded just as positively as they did to the warm and fuzzy approach because they "loved to be involved."

For more information about the Leadership Summits, visit