“You don’t have to be intellectually bright to be a competent leader.”  So said Janet Frame – Not sure where or when but it is in the Heinman Dictionary of New Zealand Quotations so she must have said it somewhere – sometime.

As one who has made a career of occupying leadership roles it would be easy to take offence at such an observation;  however with the advantage of long observation, and enough maturity to put my ego aside, I think Janet Frame is absolutely right.

In my day job I get to hear what lots of people value about effective leadership.  They say:

Understand who you are working with and communicate effectively by listening to people.  Seek and respect other’s points of view.  Maintain a sense of humour, and (my favourite) learn the ability to sit in silence.

Hold the big picture in mind, find ways to change negative to positive, be adaptable and agile, and lead by example.  Respect diversity and recognise the value it can add to sound decision-making. I agree with all of this. 

A salutary lesson in leadership may be knowing when to shut up and wait for someone else to express your views… but here are some of my own.  Honesty, humility, trust, and courage are key.

Honesty is a key component of trust, and courage is a key component of honesty.  Courage is also a key component of recognising that “the Kaupapa is bigger than you” and other people may have better skills than you to get you there.  It takes courage to acknowledge and utilise those skills.

Now here’s the rub.  Do you have to be in a position of leadership to exercise any of the aforementioned attributes?  NO YOU DON’T.  Anyone can do it.  Everyone should do it.  Good leadership is everyone’s responsibility.

Sitting back and blaming someone else’s incompetence may deliver instant gratification but it will not deliver much improvement in your situation. Standing up to be counted requires perseverance and courage.  Perseverance because you will not always be heard the first time, and courage because what you have to say won’t always be palatable.  Being wise after the event is not as satisfying as being part of the solution.

So, if you want to be an effective leader – accept that you’re not an expert on everything; and have the humility to seek wisdom from others.  Plan your own succession by encouraging your younger or less experienced colleagues.  Celebrate and encourage diversity of opinion, gender, race, and age.  Be objective and encourage others to be so, keep your focus on the end objective, and lead by example.

Martin Luther King made one of the best observations on leadership I have encountered.  He said “Cowardice asks the question – Is it safe?  Expediency asks the question – Is it polite?  Vanity asks the question – Is it popular?  Conscience asks the question – Is it right?  And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular; but one must take it because it is right”.

Janet Frame and Martin Luther King were wise people. You may not need to be intellectually bright to be a competent leader – but you do need to be honest. 

Scroll to Top