Four key traits for outstanding young leaders

Young Leaders

The final FinBiz2030 webinar of 2020 revealed four key traits for outstanding young leaders

What skills and qualities do leaders need to possess in order to navigate an uncertain world and motivate others along the way?

The old-fashioned approach to leadership prized traits like strength, charisma or the gift for saying the right thing at the right time. But as the latest Finance & Business 2030 Building Resilience webinar made clear, leadership qualities the world needs now are not focused inwards on the self but are directed at others. Today’s leader does not ask: “what can you do to help me”, but “what can I do to help you?”

The fourth instalment of the Building Resilience’ event series, and the first that CAW has held in the South Asia region, had an audience of close to 2,500 people, from 80 countries across the world. The 90-minute session heard some superb insights from a diverse range of speakers. Here is a selection of some of the experiences and observations they shared about leadership in a very honest and transparent way.

Introducing the webinar, Chartered Accountants Worldwide CEO Michael Izza called for change: that leaders need to adapt to the radically different circumstances that 2020 has presented.

“Many of us have had to adapt to working under lockdown, often working in isolation. That requires us to look at our leadership style and skills and ask ourselves: what does good leadership look like in these challenging times? How do we need to adapt? How do we build resilience for ourselves and in our teams,” he said.

Leadership trait 1: reflection

Michael’s remarks introduced one of the key themes from the webinar, which is reflection. Today’s leaders need to be self-aware and think about how their actions affect others. Leaders who reflect on their actions discover what areas they need to work on and improve. This isn’t always easy. “The toughest part of this is recognising that you could be a bull in a china shop; that you could be part of the problem and not part of the solution,” said Girish Ananthanarayanan, CEO of the education non-profit Peepul.

Leaders need to be vulnerable and open with the teams around them at times, Girish added. He acknowledged this gets harder as people rise through their careers, but that’s what makes it so important to preserve this approach.

“What happens to people as they reach senior positions – heads of state or heads of organisations – is that feedback loops get cut. They don’t have a way of knowing if they’re doing well from their team honestly, in a risk-free way. You need to ensure that you’ve got those feedback loops,” he said.

Innandya Irawan, co-founder of CarbonEthics, said it was important for leaders to “choose to be kind instead of to be right”. This calls for a level of self-awareness, so that leaders can have open discussions with their team.

“Try not to scold if they make mistakes but be honest with them and let them have ownership, not just accountability. Let them be part of a decision and it helps them to have more professional commitment,” she said.

Leonardo Kamilius, CEO of Koperasi KASIH Indonesia (KKI), showed commendable honesty when he admitted to being “a really bad leader. I was focused on tasks and I didn’t care what people think”. He changed his mindset and discovered that by caring about the team, nurturing them and helping them to develop, this would enable them to do better in their work. “If we develop our team, it will improve performance, not in the shortest term, but for sure – and it’s more sustainable as well,” he said.

Leadership trait 2: humility

The second quality that today’s leader needs is humility. “Leadership, for me, is not about a pay cheque, authority or recognition; it’s about the readiness to serve others,” said Innandya Irawan.

“It’s about equipping others with the right tools and strategies to help break down barriers and leading through example in this world we’re living in that’s vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous,” Innandya added. When working with volunteers, her first question is always to ask how she can help them to develop and grow

Leaders should get to know the team on a personal level, understand their professional or personal goals. “As a leader in the NGO that I’m in or in the corporation, I’m presented with the opportunity to make an impact in someone’s life on a daily basis, and my aim is always to leave a positive footprint wherever I go. I think the ultimate test of great leaders is whether their people felt they were a better person than the first time that they came in to join the organisation. To do that, it means you’ve got to take a stand for their development as well.”

Leadership trait 3: compassion

Another key ingredient in the makeup of a modern leader is a sense of compassion and empathy. Farwiza Farhan, a conservation activist and campaigner working in Sumatra, described her personal journey which grew from a love of nature but then developed into anger at how people and businesses were damaging the environment in the name of profit. However this subsequently evolved as she understood the importance of acknowledging other people’s points of view.

“Throughout the years of campaigning and trying to convince people to protect the environment, I learned to find and extend compassion. It’s not enough to know the science about the environment and the climate … we [have to] begin to understand one another.”

Leaders by definition have people who follow, but dictating to others will not persuade them; understanding them will. “We need more leaders that exercise compassion over command: that nurture commitment and collaboration over control and hierarchy. Leaders that can unite different interests, erase political division and really lead with empathy,” said Innandya.

She gave the example of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who led with diversity, compassion, kindness and relatability following the Christchurch shooting. “We need more world leaders that lead with empathy as well as compassion,” she said.

Leadership trait 4: trust

For leaders to get the best out of people, it can be easy to fall into the cliché of giving orders. True leaders empower those around them by trust. ISCA Council member Belinda Teo of EY Singapore, spoke of how she originally walked away from the profession after enduring long hours and high stress.

When she returned to work, she praised the leaders who guided and empowered her along the way.

“These leaders were results focused but also trusted me to lead. I wasn’t micromanaged, yet those leaders were always available to me whenever I needed guidance and advice, and at the same time they encouraged me to pursue areas outside my work scope.”

Leaders also have a duty to drive performance in their organisations, and it can be tricky to strike the right balance with promoting personal and professional development of the team. Leaders can overcome a tendency to micromanage by trusting the team, Girish said.

“Trust that your team has entrusted themselves with you, and trust that they are trying their best. Have high expectations of them, but also support them in their journey, which may look different from yours,” Girish added. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says they’re going to be a horrible person who doesn’t get the job done: that’s not what happens… Trust is at the core of collaboration; trust is at the core of unlocking peak performance.”