What Makes an Effective Leader? Agency Executives Tell All

During a recent discussion, the topic of leadership came up. In my opinion, to understand effective leadership within the PR profession, the best thing to do is tap into The Counselors Academy, which is a brain trust of talent.

The Counselors Academy is a group of nearly 400 agency leaders within PRSA featuring senior-level PR and communications counselors, from executives of leading multinational agencies to independent agency owners.

Tactics presented several questions to the group to understand the ins and outs of leadership. Here’s what some of them shared with us: 

How do you describe leadership?

Leadership is knowing when not to lead — that is, when to step aside and give people a chance to make some of the same mistakes you did, so they have a chance to learn from them.

Always giving people the right answers and protecting them from following the wrong path isn’t leading. It’s the ability to release the reins and let them gallop off on their own, and knowing when to do this so as to not put a project, client or enterprise in jeopardy. That is what separates those who lead from those who simply control.     — Jon Goldberg, chief reputation architect, Reputation Architects Inc.

Do effective leaders have similar behavioral traits?

One of the standards of leadership behavior was created by Rush Kidder, the late founder of the Institute of Global Ethics. He identified five elements to effective, ethical leadership that he found to be universal around the world, summed up as: Effective leaders must have the courage to be honest, responsible, respectful, fair and compassionate. — J.R. Hipple, managing partner, Albright Group

What’s the most common trap that leaders fall into?

The most common trap that leaders fall into is that they do not look to reinvent themselves. “How can we become the company to put us out of business” is a great quote and a question we should be asking ourselves often. — Bret Werner, managing director, Catalyst

What’s the most important quality of a good leader?

I will pick two: flexibility and openness. Regardless of title, education or experience, a leader must unleash his or her creativity and unique personality. Allowing yourself and others to be wrong or right and freeing your mind to see the opportunities and interpretations of an idea allow leaders to understand more and see things that they might have otherwise missed. — Janet Tyler, APR, co-CEO, Airfoil

How can a leader best engage and influence others?

Shut up and listen!

Strong leaders are often great speakers but all too often forget the importance of listening. Social media has changed the landscape of public relations and we’re constantly reminding our clients about the importance of engagement. Great leaders know that to truly engage and motivate people, you need to recognize the contribution of others and hear what they’re saying. — Alison M. King, president, Media Profile

Is it critical for leaders to be willing to make decisions?

Absolutely. But possibly even more important is empowering and encouraging your team to make their own decisions even if you know they might be heading down the wrong path. Letting them learn from mistakes and using this as a teachable moment is as key to leadership as knowing when to intercede. — Pam Golden, president, GLA Communications

Is leadership about what you do or who you inspire?

Both — they really go hand in hand. Leadership means consistency and excellence in all actions. If you achieve that, then you can’t help but be inspiring. And, the ability to retain consistency and excellence comes from listening and applying equal parts logic and intuition. — Terri Howe, APR, owner and principal, Howe Marketing Communications LLC

How do you know if someone is a leader?

It’s not about your title or corner office. Want to know if you’re a leader? Turn around: If you see followers who would follow you in the toughest, scariest of times, who share your vision, and who trust you absolutely, then you’re a leader.

I’ve seen senior account executives who are leaders; I’ve seen executive vice presidents who aren’t. — Ken Jacobs, principal, Jacobs Communications Consulting

Is it possible to be a born leader or can people learn how to lead?

We are all capable of being leaders if it is recognized and encouraged. “Born” leaders will come to it more naturally and will seek out opportunities to lead. Others may need to be presented with the opportunity to learn to be a leader in order to have the confidence to make it happen. — Abbie S. Fink, vice president and general manager, HMA Public Relations

Is there something that you do regularly that helps you be a better leader?

Managing and leading employees is like managing personal relationships. You have to focus on individuals’ strengths and good qualities, versus the weaknesses and what you don’t like about them. Not everyone has the same strengths, and you have to nurture and use those strengths while gently and positively encouraging them to build their weaknesses. — Jean Walcher, president, J. Walcher Communications

What’s the best way to strengthen leadership skills?

I am a constant learner — always searching for ways to hone my leadership skills and style. I watch and learn from other great leaders while reading a lot of leadership books. As of late, I’ve focused on coaching people, versus managing them. This is something that can be taught but something I’m working to perfect. — Aaron Blank, CEO and president, The Fearey Group

What have you done to develop your leadership skills?

I joined a business executives group in our third year in business. As a former financial journalist, I was largely clueless about basic management skills. The chair of the group was the former dean of the business school at San Diego State University, so I had great mentoring. Over the years, I’ve gained greatly from my membership in the Counselors Academy and our firm’s global network. Both have brilliant counselors who are pleased to share ideas. — Tom Gable, APR, Fellow PRSA, CEO, Gable PR, LLC

So what does this mean?

Nearly 25 years into my career, when thinking about leadership, I still find myself drawn to the class bumper sticker “Lead. Follow. Or get the hell out of the way.” Attributed to Gen. George S. Patton, over time, I have come to realize that this is not a message about leadership, but for leaders.

As these wise leaders in our profession have pointed out, leadership is not always about taking command; it’s about knowing how and when to take, give or share the responsibility to do what’s best for the organization that you are serving. For more on effective leaders, check out the article

This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of Public Relations TacticsFor more on effective leaders, check out the article here.

By Mike Neumeier, APR – December 29, 2014

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