Defining leadership qualities
Good leaders are essential for any business, not only for growth and profitability but also for staff morale and engagement. When 35% of people think their boss is the most stressful part of their day,1 it might be time to find ways to improve.
But what makes a good leader anyway? Are good leadership qualities innate, or can people learn them? And how can you avoid hiring leaders with so-called bad leadership qualities? Let's have a look.
What are leadership qualities?
When it comes to leadership, there is some overlap between qualities and skills. The way someone is as a person – charismatic or resilient, for example – tends to be innate, although people can enhance these qualities over time. But how someone delivers leadership and their leadership qualities – being a good listener, for example – are things you can teach. Truly great leaders have a mix of the two and are always willing to improve where they can.
Read more about leadership skills.
Good leadership qualities
In society in general, and business in particular, the perception of what makes a set of good leadership qualities can change. In the past, successful leaders were driven and dogmatic. Now, leaders need to be more empathetic, inclusive and self-aware. But having a strategic and visionary mindset are leadership qualities that will never go out of fashion.
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Top nine leadership qualities:
Self-knowledge is vital for leaders to understand how people inside and outside an organisation perceive them. Leaders also need to know where their knowledge and skills may be lacking and where they need to improve
As a leader, are you aware of your strengths and your growth areas? Do you know which communication methods work best for you? Get into the habit of asking for 360 feedback and join a coaching program for leaders as part of your learning development. It’s also worth considering taking a psychometric or personality test.
Empathetic leadership has been growing in importance. Now, post-pandemic, it’s even more crucial. Our research revealed that 58% of UK employees would consider leaving their job if company leaders didn’t empathise with staff needs. This ties in strongly with employee wellbeing and mental health at work. We found that 91% of employees thought leaders should be open about their mental health.2
The challenge is that organisations tend to train leaders to be strong and infallible. There’s a sense that talking about feelings is somehow weak. But the current landscape requires leaders to talk about feelings and show compassion. And – crucially – they need to do this regularly and consistently even when there is no business rationale for doing so. Other essential skills for an empathetic leader are being a good listener and adapting your communication style to the needs of each group or person.
Like empathy, transparency is a leadership quality that’s growing in importance. Essentially it means being honest with people and keeping your word. For a leader, transparency is essential to building trust with employees and strengthening relationships. Our research shows that 62% of employees want transparency on societal issues like climate and diversity and inclusion.3
This may mean that you need to push stakeholders to make the company stats that matter to your people visible to all.
Being a “big-picture'” thinker and visionary communicator are core qualities that elevate a great manager to a great leader. Strategic leaders are comfortable thinking innovatively and creatively. They don't micromanage but are happy to leave the finer details to other valued team members.
Integrity is more important than ever with a workforce made up of Millennials and Gen Z-ers who demand it. Honesty and accountability are key to trust, so owning up to mistakes and putting things right is a vital characteristic for business leaders. And it’s not just about human relationships – several studies have shown that high-trust companies produce better financial results.4
Once lost, trust is difficult to regain but adding the notion of trust to employee engagement pulse surveys can help companies respond in real-time to any dips.
A leader who can make key decisions without needing to consult a committee is a valuable asset. The key is to show your team that while you're happy to take risks, you're not a “risky” person who takes chances at random without weighing up the consequences.
This leadership quality was put to the test during the early days of the pandemic and beyond. Many businesses had to pivot, which could only happen quickly with a decisive leader at the helm.
This elusive quality is easy to spot but difficult to define. From Elon Musk to Jacinda Ardern, some of the most famous leaders are memorably charismatic. They're articulate and persuasive, and this galvanises those around them. There's a lot of debate around whether you can learn the techniques that underpin charisma – but it's certainly something you can't fake.
Inclusivity is coming to the fore as companies seek to become more ethical. HBR and others have talked about the six traits of inclusive leadership which enable leaders to embrace – and even leverage – differences: cognisance, curiosity, courage, cultural intelligence, commitment and collaboration.
A good starting point is to understand that all leaders have internal biases, and that it takes commitment to discover and eliminate them.
Recent times have tested leadership resilience. Leaders should test their resilience regularly with more minor challenges so they're ready for future crises. This links back to mental health and wellbeing, and employees need to see leaders taking care of themselves and speaking up if they're struggling.
Top nine leadership qualities in numbers
Bad leadership qualities
Is there such a thing as a bad leadership quality? There are certainly some qualities to avoid when choosing leaders for a business.
Ethics are more important than ever in business, and leaders need to display ethical behaviour and attitudes. This includes being an “upstander” – which means acting when you hear or observe unethical behaviour in others, rather than ignoring it.
Curiosity and openness are some of the best leadership qualities, so people who are closed off to possibilities may not be successful as leaders.
Arrogant leaders are afraid to ask for advice and admit when they're wrong, or there's something they don't know. They also tend to avoid giving credit where it's due, which can demoralise people. Confident leaders are happy to hire great people without seeing them as a threat.
A great leadership quality is being able to spot and deal with any conflict quickly and fairly before it has a chance to fester. This takes some inherent emotional intelligence, but organisations can help teach practical skills and tips.
People don’t feel safe when a leader is unpredictable, which means they don’t always give their best performance and are less willing to take risks.
Lack of vision
The ability to articulate the company vision and show it in your behaviour is a key leadership quality.
A selfish leader puts themselves first and the employees and organisation second. A great leader is selfless – a quality that doesn't always come naturally and takes a long time to develop.
Can you learn leadership qualities?
While you might not be able to learn all leadership qualities from scratch, you can certainly build on what you have. And where this isn't possible, focusing on leadership skills can help compensate for any weaker areas. Another top tip from leadership experts is to focus on developing the people around you to complement your skills and make a great team even greater.
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