A while ago, during my ‘wilderness’ years (those ten years when I permanently had a child under school-age, when I returned to the workplace four times from maternity leave, and not only repeatedly tried to re-locate my stapler but also tried to re-establish my career depending on where my department sat as a result of the latest restructure), I completed an aspiring academic leader programme. The title doesn’t do it justice. I am still not sure what I was aspiring towards and when I realised the output (and measurement of my leadership ability) involved project plans, Gantt charts and a ten-minute presentation to people I already worked with, I wondered if perhaps the definition of leadership had got lost somewhere.
However, let me not be too cynical about it. The programme included completion of 360 degree feedback on my leadership skills which I enjoyed immensely as I got to answer questions about myself and ask others to provide insights about me. I chose my critics carefully (managers, peers, colleagues) but I vividly remember the outcome because it was painful. The results (and I still have them) highlighted my limitations with regard to people and relationships (perhaps why I don’t and will never formally manage people) and how I would struggle to motivate people based on my lack of interest in and patience with them. I was, however, excellent at managing and completing tasks and when in a moment of clarity, I realised relationships are really just another task to manage, I came on leaps and bounds.
Where I did score very highly was in relation to common sense. At the time, it seemed so devastatingly boring, so utterly unglamorous (common sense, is that it?). I recall questioning my marvellous score in this area and being told — “Never under-estimate the value of common sense leadership, it’s amazing how few people have it and how it can be in such short supply in so many organisations”.
Common sense is the ability to be level-headed, to exercise sound judgment and to make rational decisions, not necessarily based on any specialised knowledge but on a capacity to understand and assess situations.
Common sense is most definitely not intelligence and I know this because I work in a University.
So, why is common sense so important for leaders and why do I want to be led by a leader with common sense? Particularly at the moment, what we need are not the glory hunters, the charismatic charmers, the inspirational charlatans but instead the reliable grafters who with their solid dependability and calm reassurance will hold our hands and lead us gradually forwards through the current crisis. There will be no sudden dramatic moves, just careful decisions and if we are disappointed in the speed of those decisions, we need to remind ourselves it is because they have taken the time to ensure that whatever decision they make is the best one they could for us.
If the person leading you in the workplace has common sense, you will see it in how they approach each and every situation but primarily, you will know it because of how they make you feel. You will feel safe because you know you can trust them in the choices they make. So, these are the five qualities that I believe common sense leaders have:
They are truthful
You don’t have common sense if you live in a world of fantasy, illusion or pipe dreams. Leaders with common sense tell the truth and live in the truth at all times even if that truth is sometimes difficult. Leaders with common sense deal in facts, they do not make rash promises or have unrealistic expectations nor do they let something continue that just isn’t going to work. They’re the ones that pull the plug early. My common sense means I rarely make promises unless I am absolutely sure I can fulfil them. To break a promise is to break trust. And no leader wants to lose anyone’s trust.
They are alert
To have sound judgement, you need to be sharp, ready and able to process large amounts of information. Leaders with common sense understand and predict consequences because they absorb, digest and make sense of the information all around them, all the time. They see patterns which enable them to quickly establish connections and draw conclusions, even if they don’t need that conclusion just yet. It can wait until they’re ready to strike. My common sense means I am alert at all times, reading the room, analysing the information all around me and making plans with it. To fail to plan, is to plan to fail. And no leader wants to fail (because of failure to plan, other failure is still acceptable).
They are cynical
This one needs to be controlled carefully. Too much cynicism can veer into bitterness and antagonism but the right amount of cynicism means always erring on the side of caution rather than leaping blindly (or with impaired vision) into the unknown. Leaders with common sense are always that little bit suspicious and will always double-check before making their next move. My common sense means I am usually the one asking the questions. Often, doubt is just caution in disguise! Still, common sense leaders do not let their cynicism hold them back, recognising that it is after all the decision not the deliberation that matters most.
They are pragmatic
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. Leaders with common sense are realists, basing their decisions on practical outcomes rather than theoretical likelihoods. Leaders with common sense are focused on reaching goals which are evidence-based and highly achievable. Without common sense, I would have responded to all the emails that arrive in my inbox needing my help with some latest unsubstantiated idea. Instead, I file those emails and wait to see if the idea will actually start to materialise before I get involved. Common sense leaders may be accused of being cautious, uninspiring, maybe even boring but who wants to lead the people they are trusted with into danger?
They are wise
“How much better to get wisdom than gold…”. Leaders with common sense are the people you will go to when you are looking for an answer because they are essentially upfront, straightforward and likely to give you an appropriate one. If they don’t have an answer, they will tell you that. They are the people whose advice you will respect and want to take on board. If you want to picture a common sense leader, just think of the wise owl sitting in a tree, observing the world around them and waiting to be asked for their opinion on it. Who wouldn’t want to have that person on their side!
If you are led by someone with common sense, take a moment and thank them. They often don’t rise through the ranks of an organisation as they don’t especially shine at interview, they sell reality not themselves. They prove what they can do, they don’t promise it. They are unlikely to be the people seeking the limelight, recognised for their innovation and dynamism. They are unlikely to put themselves forward for awards, they are too cynical about the value of awards and too pragmatic to believe they would win anyway! Their award tends to be in their own capability because common sense brings its own rewards, a confidence and a trust in oneself, based on a sure and solid foundation and a complete and utter belief that in the end it is the truth that wins, not the dream!