What are the qualities of a great leader?

At a recent talk I gave, one of the audience asked, “What makes a great leader?”

My answer? Four qualities.

1. Authenticity

You might be thinking, “This has been done to death” (you might even roll your eyes whilst you say it, maybe even tut). But, hey, hear me out. Pretty please.

When I coach people in middle-management, about to go into a bigger ‘leadership’ position, often the very first thing they want to explore are ‘leaders for me be like’. No, no, no, no, no!

We need to focus on what makes you, well, you. And then how we harness the best of you (think You2.0), whilst coming up with strategies for managing the worst of you.

As Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones state in their book, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’

“What organizations need – and what followers want – are authentic leaders who know who they are, where the organization needs to go, and how to convince followers to help them take it there.”

This is one book I always recommend to my executive coaching clients and attendees of leadership development events. It’s well worth a read if you’re interested in honing your authenticity.

Be you. Just better.

2. Vulnerability

Remember Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the film ‘Wall Street’, when he famously said “Lunch is for wimps”? Whilst the film is 30 years old, unfortunately there are still some leaders who think lunch is for wimps, that working long hours is something to be proud of and who  would never ever show vulnerability.

Now, I’m not talking about sharing every little aspect of your childhood, or crying at every team meeting. But there is something powerful about showing that there are times when, yes, you get a bit scared too.

This makes you more human (which I’m pretty sure you are), more approachable and also, getting into the dizzy heights of your role seems that bit more attainable to your staff.

If you’ve not had the chance to watch Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability then click here. Still not convinced? Then check out this piece by Emma Sepala in the Harvard Business Review which explores the gains you’ll get by being a bit more vulnerable.

And hey, there’s actually a lot of strength in showing some vulnerability.

3. Tight/loose control

I’ve worked with leaders who are overly controlling and suffocate their staff.

And I’ve worked with leaders who have little to no control over what’s going on, with the result being a bit like a rollercoaster ride… without the safety harness.

Tom Peters and Robert H Waterman talked about tight-loose control, in their book ‘In Search of Excellence’. Ultimately, this is about keeping an eye on the right things, whilst letting your team get on and do what they’re paid for.

If you’re feeling the need to do the work of your employees – or need to be copied in to every email, attend every operational meeting – then you need to ask yourself why. More often than not, it comes down to…


As in lack of.

If you don’t trust your team then you need to do serious some work looking at the root cause of that and get it sorted. Fail to do this and it will rot away at your team, impact success and you’ll likely lose your best people who’ll get really frustrated and go where they are trusted.

And if you’re the kind of leader who is too loose in their control, you may well be too distant from what is really going on. If the proverbial hits the fan then you’ll be front and centre.

Think about the scandals that have hit Rotheram Metropolitan Borough Council, Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, Stafford Hospital and Age UK in the last few years. Clues that tell me a leader is too loose in their control is the lack of questions they ask, and the general lack of genuine interest/curiosity in areas they may not necessarily be expert in.

And if you’re stuck for good questions to ask, here’s a list to help you.

4. Near/far thinking

This is about achieving a balance in focus on what is happening in the immediate term (1-2 years) whilst keeping an eye on the longer term (5-10+ years).

Clues that this is happening will be board meetings where decisions are made which acknowledge what’s going on in the current but ultimately, need to help progress to the longer term. Leaders and leadership teams who continue to make decisions based on what’s only in front of their nose at that point in time will struggle to take their organisations from good to great.

I believe there are two things that underpin this quality:

Patience + Resilience

There will be times when a decision might get made which will cause some pain in the short-term but will yield massively positive results further down the line. The ability to handle that pain, include any employee or public, is key. Patience for the longer game and being able to bounce back will help. As will clearly and regularly communicating why you’ve made the decision you have.

So, how many of these qualities do you exhibit?

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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