Leadership isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally. That’s especially true in challenging times such as these when organisations face unprecedented challenges and require strong leadership more than ever.

As head of the Graduate Business School at TU Dublin, guiding the leaders of tomorrow, Dr Colin Hughes is well placed to offer his thoughts on modern leadership. The school has enjoyed a long-running partnership with Great Place to Work and sponsors the Ireland’s Most Trusted Leader award.

Yet when it comes to trusted leadership, Hughes says organisations have faced unprecedented challenges in recent years from Brexit to Covid to recent cost escalations. As a result he believes the role of a leader is a more difficult one.

“The pace of change has intensified, and that includes everything from digital transformation to sustainability. This means individual organisations and, indeed, entire sectors have faced a lot of challenges in recent years,” he says. “Effective leadership is perhaps more important than ever in the sense that organisations have so much to grapple with.”

Colin Hughes: ‘Leadership is simply the ability to influence others to achieve a particular outcome.’ Photograph: Conor Mulhern

Yet a perennial problem is that leaders are not always well prepared for leadership roles. Hughes points out that the competencies that make an individual employee effective don’t necessarily translate to a leadership role.

“In my mind leadership is simply the ability to influence others to achieve a particular outcome. That requires a leader to, firstly, know the vision or outcome and, secondly, that they are able to mobilise others, to get them engaged and show them the purpose – a leader needs followers. However, crafting a vision requires research and analytical skills and knowledge of your industry, your customers, your competitors etc.”

All of these take time in an increasingly time-poor environment. So leaders must strike the balance between quick decision-making and firefighting while still taking the time to allow people to develop, says Hughes.

“It’s about giving them the autonomy to make mistakes while providing the coaching or mentoring needed to help them grow. Employees expect leaders to help them progress in their careers, to help them become leaders. As the old saying goes, ‘a leader’s job is to create more leaders, not more followers’.”

In his experience and research the best leaders are in fact “very good coaches”.

“This ‘employee-centric’ style of leadership builds trust, as does granting autonomy rather than micro-managing people. People want to feel trusted and want the space to achieve. So you need to earn their trust as well as trusting them, and supporting them personally as well as professionally.”

Why have strong people around you if you are not trusting in their insights and expertise?

On the flip side leaders should be vulnerable enough to say when they don’t have all the answers and to ask others for help. Far from showing weakness, this authenticity will further build trust. “This might sound obvious, but why have strong people around you if you are not trusting in their insights and expertise?” Hughes says.

He acknowledges that it can take time and experience for a leader to develop the confidence to admit that they don’t have all of the answers and to trust their colleagues.

What else makes a good leader? Well, there are practical considerations. Hughes says that in order to develop a vision leaders need to be up to date with industry and consumer trends and the factors which influence these trends, such as advances in technology, political and legal changes.

This requires a certain level of curiosity, along with keen research and analytical skills. “Leaders also need very strong communication skills to present a well-informed vision to their team and to influence wider decision-making. If a leader cannot present data-driven and evidence-based arguments or recommendations people will lose trust in their ability.”

Leaders also need to work on themselves, and engage in significant reflection while doing so, Hughes says. “Modern leaders need to be resilient but this requires them to look after themselves, to recognise when they need to recharge and when their team members need to recharge. They need to be aware of their own strengths and limitations – that’s why we always start our leadership courses with a deep dive on self-awareness and identifying blind spots.

“That is where the partnership with the Great Place to Work really adds value to our learners and to GPTW clients, as we produce insights and run events that provide the space for people to learn from each and to keep reflecting on their leadership journey.”