Characteristics of good leaders

Leadership development is notoriously difficult to get right. For years consultants, business school gurus and other experts have created new trends as they have attempted to define what makes a good leader and how those characteristics can be developed.  These trends have included authentic leadership, transformational leadership and emotionally intelligent leadership among others. Whilst it is likely that there is value in all of these there is no evidence at all to suggest that high authenticity or emotional intelligence for example, will cause a person to be a better leader. (Most of us probably know poor leaders who are very authentic or highly emotionally intelligent. If we are very unlucky we have also worked for one!)  John Antonakis*, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the University of Lausanne, describes this as the classic problem when experts mix up correlation with causation. Most experts examine the top performing companies and then look to see what their CEOs have in common. They then determine that these are the essential characteristics of success and go on to promote developing those features in others.  Antonakis illustrates the problem: "it’s like studying the top CEOs in Switzerland and saying their names are Hans, Ulrich, Juergen, Joerg, and what have you. What do they have in common? They’re male. If the top 10 performing companies have a male with a Germanic name as CEO, does it mean that you need to have a Swiss German male to run a top performing company? No. Because the bottom performing companies probably also have Swiss German male CEOs running them".  A very firm advocate of evidence-based practice, Antonakis outlines what the characteristics known to be important in good leaders are:

  • personality traits such as emotional stability, extraversion, conscientiousness and open-mindedness

  • intelligence - to be effective a leader must be smarter than the average in the group BUT not too much smarter as that risks the group not understanding or being left behind

  • task-oriented leadership - having a good grasp of the system, the organisation and the strategy 

Once these essentials are in place, people and communication skills come to the fore (but without these essentials will remain ineffective). Other characteristics may well prove to be important, but the evidence isn't there yet.  Good, effective assessments for these characteristics are readily available and can form a robust basis for selection and promotion decisions as well as underpinning leadership development programmes.  

* For the full article go to

This article was first published by ManagingChange on 7/6/19

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