Many bosses find themselves in leadership positions without ever having chosen to become a leader, let alone a great leader. 

The “Peter Principle” is commonly phrased as: “Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” In modern organisations, the principle applies to most bosses who are eventually promoted beyond their level of ability.

For example, the specialist (accountant, engineer, lawyer etc.) who is so good at his craft that he gets promoted to a management position, is now in charge of people without having mastered any real leadership skills. And then he fails.

It’s not his fault — he was promoted into the position with little or no training or mentoring. His situation is “sink or swim”. 

In some cases, well-intentioned promises of leadership development, coaching or mentoring are made to the leader when he was appointed, only to fall by the wayside because more pressing business matters crowd out the hours in the new leader’s day.

Like the captain of a sporting team or a general of an army, leaders need to innovate, inspire, excite or provide a clear vision to others. They hold and believe in a vision and, just as importantly, have the self-belief and conviction to communicate it to others.

Furthermore, leaders do not have definitive characteristics. Some inspire and organise, whereas others are strategic or tactical, spot opportunities or protect the organisation against disaster. 

Journey of discovery

Leadership is a journey of discovery. It is the expression of a person at his or her best whose aim is to transform something for the better and to develop this potential in others.

It is not a solitary pursuit but one that harnesses the energy of those around the leader.

A manager can implement processes, monitor performance, set business goals and objectives and generally take care of the day-to-day needs of their staff. However, achieving authentic leadership takes more than textbook management skills.

With the relevant executive development support, those with leadership potential can be developed into outstanding leaders.

No one can argue that a great leader can boost an organisation’s growth and performance in much the same way a poor leader can run one into the ground. But what makes a leader effective or ineffective is a more nebulous concept to pin down.

The leadership qualities that are required to make a good leader can vary in different companies, teams and situations.

According to Jim Kouzes, author of the bestseller, The Leadership Challenge, the qualities that make an effective leader have two distinct perspectives: what followers look for and what research from the past few decades has shown.

“There are four things consistently that we have found that people most look for in a leader. Number one, people want a leader who’s honest, trustworthy and has integrity.

“Second (they want someone) forward-looking, who has a vision of the future, foresight and thinks about the long term. Third, people want a leader who is competent, has expertise, knows what they’re doing, and fourth is inspiring, dynamic, energetic, optimistic and positive about the future.”

This can be illustrated in both artistic and modern leadership models. For example, the fact that leadership qualities are dependent on context is demonstrated in the classic film, Twelve O’Clock High.

Produced in 1949, the film’s plot centres on a squadron that is suffering increasing losses during World War II. The squadron leader’s people-oriented approach starts to fail. He is replaced by a dictatorial bully who turns the squadron round and restores their pride.

It is interesting to note that such leadership behaviour would be largely regarded as unacceptable today.

Leadership styles

Some people have one style of leadership, which is fine if the situation requires that style of leadership.

Flexible leadership, however, involves being able to adapt your leadership style according to the situation and the state of the team. For example, taking charge when a team is forming but playing the role of coach when a team is managing itself well.

Also, the need to change one’s leadership style according to the circumstances is one of the fundamental principles underlying popular models such as Situational Leadership (develop by Blanchard and Hersey in the late 1960s). And there are many other examples that go much further back, to biblical times and other periods of recorded history.

Keep pace with trends

For Singapore’s budding leaders to compete with the world’s best, senior managers need to embrace the latest techniques of leadership development. The price of not doing so will create plenty of managers, but very few leaders.

Finally, remember: Leadership is a journey, not something that can be learned on a five-day training course. It requires time and reflection.


Article by Prof Sattar Bawany, the CEO and Master Executive Coach of the Centre for Executive Education (CEE Global). CEE offers human capital management solutions, including talent management and executive development programmes (executive coaching and leadership development). For further information, visit or e-mail