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The Effectiveness-Lab

Five unique attributes of a ‘smart’ leader – going beyond the traditional

The last four blogs situated leadership at the bionically-balanced and Smart-entity. Smart leadership is discussed from multiple lenses: efficacy; the factors that influence your fate as a leader; and the impact organizational culture can have on your ability to lead and influence a particular organization. Last week’s blog discussed turbulence at the organization and the ever present crosswind factor. Apparently, leadership is akin to a plane that is taking off – it does so against the wind and not with it.

Is your leadership perspective right?

You may also recall that bionically-balanced and Smart organizations are considered so because, like living organisms, the finer and interconnected elements of such an organization present in the form of an intertwined system. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The bionic organization like the human body functions well when all its vital elements (akin to vitals in humans) are operating optimally. The Effectiveness lab outlines four organization-vitals (OV’s) that are required for the bionic organization to function optimally: leadership, strategy, design (architecture), and people.

Whatever the situation, leaders also need unique individual attributes to effectively lead at a bionically-balanced entity

The five (5) individual Smart leader attributes:

1. Knowing and understanding the context at the organization

To know and understand organizational context are two different things. A leader may know so well, the nuts and bolts of their organization’s culture, yet fail to understand how to leverage such context. Knowing the organization’s culture context, and not understanding its consequences can be catastrophic for leaders. When leaders know the culture but fail to make the right maneuvers to gain influence, they are likely to: whine plus express their frustration with the organization. Such leaders will blame the organization for their individual failure.

The truth is – such leaders have the knowledge of the social-cultural situation at the organization, but little to zero understanding of the necessary dynamics to achieve influence.

Smart leaders both know and understand how to get around such bottlenecks. After all, organizational culture and its sub-elements is a challenge likely to be found in every organization. It’s like flying and turbulence.  Airplane pilots not only know that there is turbulence in-flight but also understand how to fly through it unharmed

2. Taking a bird’s-eye view of the organization

As discussed above, bionically-balanced organizations are like living organisms. They are intimately interconnected and understood only by reference to the whole.

Smart leaders take a bird’s-eye view of all the four organizational vitals: leadership, strategy, design (architecture), and people.

Achieving effective control of a bionically-balanced organization requires knowledge and understanding of what is happening across the four vitals. Even more important, leaders have to understand how one vital interconnects with the other, and the resulting cause and effect.

To accomplish the above, a smart leader has to spend enough time on the pedestal – and like a bird in the sky, observe what is happening below them. In taking such a position, smart leaders look out for what is working, under what circumstances [the interconnections – cause & effect], as well as what is undermining value creation. You can not attain the latter until a leader attains the correct organizational altitude

3. A knack for understanding the ‘intangibles’ that drive value-creation at the organization

Smart leaders do not always need technical skills to match the core business of the organization’s they lead. Instead, Smart leaders have transferable leadership skills that can lead them to success in any industry. You do not have to look further than the renowned World-Bank for a good example of transferable leadership skills, applied successfully in a technically complex business eco-system.

The current president of the world bank Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Is a medical doctor by training, leading the world’s most influential economic powerhouse. Yet. I am not sure that Dr. Kim uses many of his technical skills as a physician, in his job at the world bank.

Those of you accustomed to the linearity and liking for order, as opposed to discontinuity, will think that certain generic leadership characteristics bring success to the Dr. Kim’s of the world. Indeed, the literature on leadership provides characteristics of the quintessential leader. The hypothesis is that: if you possess all or the majority of individual characteristics, you are firmly on the path to quintessential leadership: honesty, ability to delegate, communication, confidence, commitment, positive attitude, ability to inspire, etc

Yes, all the above characteristics are a prerequisite to smart leadership. However, there is one critical determinant of quintessential leadership, that the above linear leadership characterization misses – the INTANGIBLES

There are certain intangibles that quintessential leaders have, and that simmer in the background, before the manifestation of the above orthodox characteristics. The intangibles, as the name goes, cannot necessarily be listed as products/characteristics of a quintessential leader. They are soft-habits, gut-feelings that are innate to the DNA of a smart leader and are not easily copied:

  • Pendulum oversight by leaders. Leaders that exhibit this intangible have the ability to swing like a pendulum between strategic, tactical, and operational level issues. This is not the so-called management-by-walking-about and should not be confused with micro-management habits. Pendulum oversight leaders have a good command of what happens at the frontline of organizations, mid-level structures and all the way to the executive and board levels. More importantly, they bring the ability to not only swing like a pendulum across these three levels but can seamlessly connect the dots at the three levels
  • From the above pendulum-oversight, leaders attain a bird’s-eye view of the organization and with that, put into practice their knack for identifying black spots across the organization.
  • The capability to relate what they observe, to the people that work for them in the organization. The relating is not about identifying who is doing their job or not, and bestowing punishment or reward on them, but empathizing.
  • With leaders in the know of why workers behave the way they do, they can deploy viable and sustainable commitment-to-people-development strategies. Moreover, such leaders do the latter without dependence on complex and archaic HR talent-gap identification systems. Such capability comes naturally to them and in such leaders, is a mobile talent development unit
  • Armed with the above four, the smart leader attains the ability to seamlessly make small yet significant incremental changes to the value chain of the organization. Friends, there is not the time to wait for large-scale change-episodes at organizations. Quintessential leaders make change a seamless part of their organization’s value chain.

4. Protecting teams from the organizational noise that distracts them

Accountability for the leader, unlike for the teams below them, is final. There is not always room for the leader to fix what has gone wrong – their’s is ultimate responsibility for both the rights and wrongs in a given situation.

The finality of leadership accountability is something that weighs down even the smartest of leaders. In the dog eat dog, shark-tank world of modern leadership, leaders may opt for the easy way out when things go wrong at their organizations – passing the buck. Because leaders have the privilege to boss others, blaming individuals and teams that report to them for what goes wrong, is an option

However, the above is not smart leadership. It’s painful to take one for the team, but Smart leaders understand that it comes with the territory – do not pass the buck. Smart leaders take one for the team first, then address the failing in an honest, firm, win-win manner, at the right moment. This way, smart leaders end up on the inspirational side and create winning teams

5. Knowing and understanding your leadership-style personification and modeling behavior

There is so much written and taught about leadership that leaders have superficially chosen to practice certain leadership styles. The challenge, however, is that practice of certain leadership models goes beyond methodology, to behavioral evidence. For example, a leader can’t practice servant-leadership without exhibiting such leadership behavior – like the case of a priest in the church that preaches to the followers one thing and does another outside church.

Smart leaders know and understand the leadership model they ascribe to – and will behave as such. This embodiment of leadership-style influences the behavior of smart leaders and ultimately, perception by the others that they lead and lead with. Smart leaders do not derive their leadership endorsement from the control and power they have in the organization, but from the perception that others have of them.

Are you a smart leader? Can you create and lead a bionically-balanced entity?


6 responses to “Five unique attributes of a ‘smart’ leader – going beyond the traditional”

  1. […] blog collocates the Effectiveness lab’s five critical leadership attributes against those of the servant leader.  In the end, we should be able to determine the extent of OV […]


  2. This reminds me of difference between leaders and managers. Most of the leaders are managers, too operational with a limited focus on the overwhole core business and value creation. However, this might be because of the recruitment processes – consideration of put on technical or less on competences.


    1. Justin – thanks for reading the blog and sharing the difference between a manager and a leader – one has to wonder if the pressure to work with fewer staff is not leading to the ‘merger’ of the two roles – more on that another day 😜


  3. Herbert Mugumya Avatar
    Herbert Mugumya

    Kulika Easter Muna…..
    Brilliant and excellent post. Loved it by every sentence and word. Leadership is by everyone in the organization. Remember the supervision orgchart? Leadership is shared and owned by many individuals in an organization. It’s a shared responsibility. If these leadership values are shared and owned, then the final leader, irrespective of his qualifications and background, will seamlessly have an easy job. But is if lower leaders delegate upwards, their leadership responsibilities, even the smartest leader will fail…..

    Over to you Apollo… back to my leftover drinks from Easter celebrations….

    Siku njema!


    1. Thanks Kairu for reading the blog and as well, for your insight

      What a feast you had at the house with a whole Bishop in attendance – God bless you all sebbo


      1. Herbert Mugumya Avatar
        Herbert Mugumya

        It was an honor and blessing to host the man of God with his family join us for Easter celebrations. He presides over Ankole Diocese.

        How was it in Nairobi or u traveled to Luuka?


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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