Vol 46: Issue 1 | March 2023
When we think of some of the all-time greatest leaders, like Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi, there’s no doubt they all possessed a certain something.
They all inspired people to listen and follow them in times of change — they were charismatic.
But is charisma the only quality we should be looking for in great insurance leaders of the modern day, when we’re experiencing global turbulence like never before?
Jennifer Richards, head of Aon Australia says there’s always place for leaders with charisma. “We attribute that to people who are perhaps larger than life.”
For Catherine Carlyon, country manager — Australia, AXA XL, the concept of charismatic leadership is outdated. She argues that the definition of charisma is “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others”.
“I associate this with the similar idea that there are ‘born’ leaders,” she says. “This conjures a mental image of the previous generations of male leaders. We need to change our perceptions, expectations and language. In my opinion, authenticity is more important.”
Both agree that leadership takes all different shapes and forms with more than one way to achieve a desired outcome. “I think everyone has known leaders who accomplish great results with a more understated ability to connect and listen,” Richards says.
Navigating change and disruption
Chiew Ai Chin, founder and CEO of Asia’s first leadership coaching platform, BestOfMe, and former chief strategy officer for AIA Singapore, says the best leaders strike a balance between managing for today’s success and the race to avoid being disrupted in the future.
“The ability to navigate change and uncertainty is the hallmark of a great leader,” says Chiew. “While a competent leader may possess many strong qualities, such as vision, courage and empathy, a great leader stands out by embodying all of them in a balanced and effective manner.”
Australian-based leadership consultant Danielle Dal Cortivo has a slightly different take on this notion.
“A great leader is one who can thrive inside disruption and change,” she says.
Dal Cortivo, who is CEO and founder of Kayo Consulting and two other social enterprises, says great leaders can adapt to change while remaining steady in terms of their direction. They can pivot inside the broader vision, without getting distracted, she says.
The qualities of greatness
Our experts agree that great leadership is a complex and dynamic concept that involves a wide range of skills and abilities, including strategic thinking, emotional intelligence and effective communication.
Dal Cortivo says one critical quality of a great leader is the capacity to bring or be whatever is required in any given situation to fulfill the future they are creating. “There are ways to wing it as a leader: you can hide behind all sorts of things,” she says.
“But to be an extraordinary leader, you must have power in your word; you must fulfil on what you say. People don’t need to like you.
"But when they know what to expect, that you will deliver on what you say and show up authentically, it creates a culture. And to do all of that well requires self-awareness and practice.”
Great leaders can also fulfill on their vision with straightness and compassion, even when it’s disruptive to the current status quo.
“They can have tough conversations with empathy and do what it takes to have their vision realised even if there’s an element of personal risk or threat,” explains Dal Cortivo.
“Equally, you have relate to people at the place they’re at. You can’t drag people along. They’re free to choose. There will be some people who are just not on board with where you’re going and there’s something very powerful about letting those people go.”
She also says great leaders never stop, regardless of the setbacks. “They walk the talk. You don’t get to weasel out as a leader.
"I think great leaders hold themselves to account. ‘It’s a non-negotiable for me to fulfil on my weekly promises and commitments. Who am I to be coaching other people to be accountable if I’m not?’”
But what makes people want to follow a leader? Given the importance of climate change impacts and other pressing contemporary social issues, Richards argues great insurance leaders question and connect with their people on the role of the industry.
“For insurance businesses, which regularly grapple with the risks and effects of floods, fires earthquakes and storms, ‘followship’ is created by identifying a purpose people can get behind,” she says.
“People don’t follow blindly. As we know, it is increasingly important for them to have a connection. They follow a purpose that resonates for them.
"We firmly believe in the social purpose of insurance as an industry — this belief is necessary for a meaningful career. Many competent leaders believe in the mission.
"They believe in the vision that’s been set forth, but they struggle to communicate it or bring it to life for colleagues. A key difference between great and competent leadership is the ability to connect with how people feel.”
Dal Cortivo adds that great leaders bring people along by asking themselves who they can be to facilitate and create an environment that sets their team up for success.
“It requires being really clear about where we’re going, what success looks like and how we measure that. In terms of the processes, leaders ask themselves how to remove the operational, functional or cultural barriers, so their people can just get on with it.”
A born leader?
While some people may have a natural inclination towards leadership, it is unlikely that any individual is born with all the skills necessary to be a great leader.
And while different styles of leadership such as autocratic, transactional or democratic have been popularised over time, our experts agree the most effective approach depends on the situation, the goals of the organisation, the personalities and skills of team members, and the leader’s own strengths and weaknesses.
“Different situations may require different leadership styles, and the most effective leader is able to adapt their style to meet the needs of the situation and the team,” says Chiew.
“For example, a coaching leadership style can be effective when team members are highly motivated and committed to their work. It can help to create a supportive work environment, foster employee engagement, increase job satisfaction, and drive performance and results.”
Richard Osborn, AXA XL’s chief of staff for Australia, says there is a time and place for almost all styles of leadership from ‘servant’ on one end of the spectrum to ‘autocratic’ on the other.
“A leader should develop at least a couple of them,” he says. “I think that the main difference between an ‘X factor’ leader and a competent one is the situational awareness and judgement to know what style to use in any given scenario, as well as the ability to seamlessly switch from one to another.”
Richards adds that some people become leaders over time. “There are definitely ways for people to develop their leadership style. At Aon, we’re incredibly attuned to developing a more expansive definition of leadership so that we achieve the inclusiveness we’re committed to.”
She concedes that the traditional (autocratic) style leader still appeals to certain people, particularly in the insurance industry, which has been male dominated.
“As we drive for a more diverse, inclusive workplaces, there are other voices and styles that resonate much better for people who come from a different ethnic background or a different gender, or a different life experience,” she says. “We like to look around our leadership group and see a really diverse set of styles.”
Finding your own path
While modelling the capacities of others can be powerful, Dal Cortivo would like to see a shift away from relying on styles such as transactional or bureaucratic.
“Focusing on following someone else’s road map to success seems like the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” she says.
“Your journey is yours, and your self expression, what you truly bring as a leader, is yours. Step into your authentic expression as leader.”
Dal Cortivo adds that, in her experience, achieving extraordinary results as a leader has sometimes meant learning new ways of doing things and unlearning what she was trained in and the beliefs she was born into.
“As a leader, practising, trialling and being okay with failure is essential as it gives people around you that same capacity. It doesn’t work to stop learning.”
Chiew also believes leaders must nurture and develop their skills through ongoing education, coaching, training and real-world experience.
“To ensure learning is internalised, the BestOfMe platform takes a holistic approach to coaching,” she says. “As a tech-enabled platform, we make coaching more accessible and scalable to develop leaders’ potential.
"We embed digital coaching into the Leader Coach Masterclass so that the leaders have a coach to support them in their journey.”
Overall, Richards says it’s clear that great leadership requires certain consistent attributes, such as self-awareness, responsiveness, empathy, accountability, and the ability to communicate complex messages.
“Beyond that as an industry, we need to cultivate more diversity in leadership in order to appeal to a wider cohort, and in recognition of the fact that our clients and stakeholders are looking for us to evolve.”
Levelling the playing field
Three female leaders weigh in on gendered leadership styles, fostering inclusion and the barriers we still need to overcome.
Danielle Dal Cortivo
“I’m clear about the way systemic gender bias within our systems, structures, perceptions and processes impact what we say and do, as well as how we behave. But as a female leader, what empowers me is to really look at what I am doing to limit myself.
Time after time I see female leaders with a fundamental lack of belief in themselves. And until we go to work on that, our lack of self-belief will hold us back. Because even when our results indicate excellence or people tell us we’re great, we don’t believe them. There are structural barriers, but what really stops us from taking leadership roles is often ourselves. It’s not just the system.”
Chiew Ai Chin
“Research has shown that women tend to exhibit more transformational leadership styles, which emphasise collaboration, empathy and the development of team members. However, this does not mean that all women should adopt this style, nor does it mean that men cannot exhibit these traits. The most important thing for women is to develop their own leadership style and approach that is grounded in their values, strengths, and expertise.
There is no one-size-fits-all leadership style that women should develop to succeed in leadership roles. Instead, it is important for women to develop a leadership style that is authentic and effective for them.”
“Many women entering insurance workplaces must contend with an uneven playing field around the types of relationships that have historically spurred careers on. While professional and personal networks are incredibly important and there are great organisations for that, I think sponsorship is so much more important. Being really intentional around sponsorship doesn’t just mean connecting people. It means putting key female talent forward for opportunities and actively promoting them.
We’ve also got to be realistic around flexibility. There is still the reality that, given the social dynamic, women are generally primary caregivers for children and might have a higher priority around flexibility in the workplace. At Aon, we’ve really focused on trying to offer colleagues flexible work practices through our smart working model, which has been recognised by Flex Careers, the leading expert on diversity and flexibility in the future workplace.
We’re focused on making sure that we don’t overlook colleagues when they are on maternity leave or taking a career break such that they don’t get passed up for promotions or opportunities to take new roles. For us it’s not just about counting heads, it’s about making heads count.”
Qualities of a great leader
Visionary: Global perspectives are now more important for leaders to set the direction for the organisation. They need to have the ability to see beyond the headwinds and understand how global trends are impacting their businesses.
Innovative: A great leader is creative and innovative, and they are always looking for new ways to solve problems and improve processes.
Courageous: The courage to take strategic risks in the face of uncertainty and manage the shareholders’ demand for short-term business profit cannot be underrated. A strong business acumen is also important to help leaders understand the opportunity trade-offs for every decision made.
Empathic: While driving hard targets and results is important, a great leader needs to be empathetic towards their people, and genuinely care about them. This will go a long way in employee branding and staff retention and productivity. All these translate to better business performance in the longer term.
Coach-like: A great leader often embodies a coach-like approach to leading their team. They focus on developing the skills and abilities of their team members, bringing out the best in them, rather than just giving orders and directing their work.
Common Leadership Styles
Transformational: Inspires and motivates the workforce without micromanaging. A focus on growth, development and the needs of employees. A focus on integrity, ‘walking the talk’ and modelling standards of behaviour expected from the team. Communicates vision to employees to get everyone on board.
Transactional: Focuses on, and is underpinned by, a clear structure of rewards and punishments to achieve optimal job performance. Willingness to give something for something in return (e.g. promotions and pay rises based on performance). Focuses on results, efficiency and performance, rather than people and relationships. Often referred to as the opposite of transformational leadership.
Autocratic: Strong focus on operating with ultimate authority and power over others. Makes decisions based on their own ideas with little consultation or input from others. Not necessarily bad, but can simply be assertive and not take no for an answer.
Bureaucratic: Clear chain of command, rigid structures and strict regulations, to enable efficient systems and calculability. Relies on conformation by its followers. This structure enables an organisation to function like a machine as employees know what to do and their reporting hierarchy.
Democratic: Also known as participative leadership or shared leadership it is based on democratic principles — it is run by the people. Members of the group participate in decision-making processes. Suitable for any organisation type. Ideas are freely exchanged within a team. Team members are considered equals, and everyone is encouraged to contribute to the decision-making process.
Source: Kayo Consulting from multiple sources including Vantage Circle.
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