What Makes a Good Leader?

by Paddy Barr, Managing Partner, Barr Performance Coaching and IMI associate

Is leadership an art or a science? Leadership is a topic that remains a question on the minds of academics and coaches – is there a magic formula, or prescriptive guide to becoming a successful leader? Well, no – but in my view, there are some characteristics that are common to all successful leaders. Everyone can be a leader if they put their mind to it, regardless of specific leadership style (Indeed, a successful leader will need to be able to demonstrate a number of styles as they encounter different scenarios.)

What Makes a Good Leader?

The primary characteristics and behaviours of a strong leader are:

  • Vision and sense of purpose
  • Integrity
  • Authenticity
  • Clarity
  • Recognizing others
  • Develop and promote leadership in others
  • Build community
  • Confidence

Vision and Sense of Purpose

Key attributes: Future-oriented, knowing what it is they stand for and/or want to achieve and having the focused drive, energy, passion and courage to pursue their goals.

People will follow individuals with great, well formulated ideas, especially if those ideas are based upon a realistic prospect of success and are aligned to the followers’ core values.  A leader who has taken the time out to discover their true purpose will probably end up being more inspiring than an individual who has simply had a title bestowed upon them. You don’t need a title to be a leader –


Key attributes: Self-aware, learner, open minded, empathy, integrity including ethics.

Strong leaders will be very self-aware, have the emotional intelligence and integrity to approach situations in a balanced manner. We all know that nobody is perfect, and good leaders prudently solicit help from those who have the skills or competencies that they do not have.

More and more high calibre people are looking to work with leaders who demonstrate that they have high ethical standards. It is critical in the area of integrity and ethics that the leader is seen to “walk the walk and talk the talk”. Integrity and ethics are not passive or covert traits; they must be publicly demonstrated – especially when times are tough or when the team face a difficult decision.


Trust & Behaviours consistent with core values

A key part of your authenticity is to challenge the team to leave their comfort zone or to inspire others to achieve what they did not think was possible. In order to initiate the move out of the comfort zone, the leader must empathise with the team members as they face the challenge. Displaying emotions or feelings is core to being an authentic leader, just ensure you do so with composure, as composure inspires confidence. Failing is a necessary part of learning, and as a leader you will have to work with your team to devise appropriate methods to pilot new ideas in a safe environment. A good barometer is to ask yourself how many pilots have you run or enabled in the last 24 months. If the answer is none or a few, then you are probably at risk of stagnating in your comfort zone.


Key attributes: Clear on vision, goals and expectations

It is important as a leader to demonstrate a focussed drive, energy and passion for your goal or vision. Ensure that your goals are clear and prioritised; successful leaders always retain their focus on the primary goal and don’t let themselves get distracted . The value of the secondary goals is diminished if the key priorities are not achieved, so focus is important.

Ambiguity can derail a team very quickly or be the source of discontent within the team. The leader must be very precise and clear when it comes to outlining the success factors for the team, and it is essential that these expectations are established early and clearly.

Providing clarity on goals and expectations is a critical aspect of leadership. It is important to have objectively measurable goals, as well as providing clarity on the behavioural norms that are expected from the team members. Clarity on the behavioural norms becomes critical when the team encounters a crisis or a decision that will require compromise. The leader is responsible for creating the environment within which the team can do their best work.

Recognizing others

Key attributes: Demonstrate valuing others, listening

Strong leaders will be vigilant in looking for opportunities to recognise the contributions of others on the team. In this regard the leader will listen intently to what people are saying, all the time looking for opportunities to build on or incorporate a team member’s ideas into the strategy. Additionally, they are also listening for signs of underlying concerns that may be hindering a team member.

Prime motivators for people tend to revolve around doing meaningful work, making an impact and being recognised for their impact or contribution to the team. A good leader will construct their teams so that the individuals have the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability and the team deliver more than the sum of the parts.

Recognition is critical in sustaining positive behaviours and performance. The very act of noticing and recognising the contribution or effort of the team members can be very motivational. Even seemingly inconsequential awards can have a very positive impact on the morale of the team. For low performing team members, the simple act of recognising that they have the potential to succeed may bring about the desired change in performance. The leader must take every opportunity to publicly and privately demonstrate that they value the contribution of individuals on the team.

Develop and Promote Leadership in others

Key attributes: Identify and develop talent within the team, support others with their personal goals, delegate certain aspects of leading to others

A strong leader will recruit high calibre individuals onto the team. In fact, it could be argued that the leader’s most significant contribution to the team is the selection and retention of the talent on the team. The challenge is that high calibre individuals will always want to develop and invariably have other personal goals that they are trying to achieve. Remember, high performers will always be in demand; therefore, it is important as the leader for you to make your team an attractive place to work. Giving team members the appropriate experience and exposure will be important in the quest to retain talent on the team. Assisting team members with their own needs and broader goals is critical. Team members will most likely be appreciative of the opportunity to learn and grow, and in return will deliver more for the team in the long run.

Good leaders create other leaders not followers, therefore a strong leader will provide team members with the opportunity to take the leadership on certain aspects of the initiative of project. This leadership will be publicly visible and allow the individual to get the appropriate recognition if their work is good. Remember, if their work is not good then you as the leader need to take accountability for the poor work. By giving the team member the opportunity to lead, you inherently took a risk and as such you are ultimately accountable for the outcome. Invariably, if you set the individual up for success (i.e. put in place guard rails or early warning signals) it is unlikely that the team member will fail and they will ultimately be very appreciative of the opportunity to lead.

Successful leaders look for the learning opportunity in the situation and set about using the lessons learnt to advance their cause. They will always create space for continuous professional development.

Build Community

Key attributes: Promote a sense of belonging to the team or a cause, enabling the team to be successful and do their best work

A person’s sense of self-worth or even identity can be very strongly influenced by the experiences they have within the team. We have a natural instinct or desire to belong to a community of like-minded individuals who share similar values and hopes and fears for the future. A good leader will foster a sense of attachment and belonging to the team. Even if some individuals on the team work remotely or on very unique aspects of the initiative, it is important to make them feel they belong to a bigger collective and ensure that they do not feel isolated.

A key part of making people feel included is to solicit and incorporate their opinions and ideas into the team strategy or protocols. The leader must not only be open to taking on new ideas but also be curious to invite diverse perspectives.

The team will, in all likelihood, want to be part of creating the solution. They will want to feel ownership for (or at least influence of) some of the final solution. High performing teams do not like to be spoon fed, they like the challenge of figuring out how to achieve the goal.


Key attributes: Not afraid to take risks and make tough decisions

Successful leaders tend to know what they want, why they want it, and have a rough plan of how they are going to achieve their goals. They need to have the confidence to share their vision and plans and take feedback where appropriate.  While it is good to have a rough plan, it is important not to be too prescriptive as a leader – this is where many leaders fall down.

Strong leaders always take action. Your energy and passion can be infectious within the team, in fact if you fail to be public in expressing your unwavering commitment to the cause those around you may lose confidence in you. A leader will be a change agent – they will not simply react to the environment, they will actively look to control their own and their group’s destiny.

The leader needs to be comfortable with controlled experimentation or change that will advance the organisation towards its goals. The change may simply reinvigorate an existing process, but the reinvigoration will energise the team and sustain progress, which is critical in a multi-year initiative. An audacious vision or goal will not be easy to achieve, thus as the leader you must show the courage of your convictions and be willing to make sacrifices to achieve the goal. These sacrifices will become evident as you prioritise your time and energy. You display confidence by sharing what lies behind the courage of your convictions.

Very few leaders will escape having to make tough decisions or avoid taking risks. Therefore, it is important that you have the confidence and courage of your convictions to persevere in the face of adversity. The team will watch the leader and gain confidence from their conviction and determination to succeed. As a result, it is important that the leader displays their confidence.

People are not naturally resistant to change, however people do resist if there is a real or perceived threat to their intrinsic values, sense of purpose or how they are rewarded. First and foremost, the leader must identify with the team’s core values and motivations and draw on the energy associated with the team members’ desire to drive change. The leader must create the environment in which calculated risks can be undertaken in a controlled manner.

Am I Lacking As A Leader?

Are you worried that you don’t have some or all of the characteristics listed above? Don’t panic! The good news is that you probably do have at least some of these competencies – however, you must be demonstrating the skills you do have.

If you are feeling weak in the leadership competencies, if you’re not sure whether you demonstrating that you are a manager or a leader, there are solutions available:

  1. You can recruit someone onto the team who does have the characteristics and skills that you feel you lack. In this instance, you can learn from them and they can gently remind you of the need to take the appropriate relevant action. Alternatively, you can buy in the competency. E.g. If you feel setting a vision is not your strong point, you could bring in a consultant or coach who will work with you and the team to set the vision and put in place a framework to track progress.
  2. You can delegate responsibility to an individual on the team, or the team as a whole. In this instance, you facilitate the environment for the skills to be developed without you having to be the focal point. For example, if creativity is not your strong point, you can ensure that you create the space for the team to brainstorm and be creative.
  3. You can ask a peer, mentor or coach to keep you honest and give you tips and tricks that will help you overcome your competency deficit. This can be a very good way of making sure you maximise the coaching or mentoring relationship.

Tips, Tricks and Takeaways

  • Check Yourself: Are you a leader due to the power or authority bestowed on you by someone else, or are you a leader because you have inspired others to follow you? A quick test here is to ask yourself the question: “Why would anyone want to be led by you?”
  • Share the Glory: Success can feed a competitive streak in some leaders (especially in the corporate world), but it is essential that you make sure your team is getting due credit for the success. Good leaders know that they have strengths but that they cannot succeed in the long run without relying on others. A truly confident leader is happy to share the plaudits with team members and others who provided help along the way.
  • Seek Diversity in Hiring: Hire people who believe what you believe, as well as those whose values are aligned to the values of your organisation and are driven to live to their values. However, make sure to also include people who will bring a different perspective or point of view to the table. Diversity in all forms is essential in all high performing teams.
  • Shake Up the Routine: It is good to have a disciplined process and way of working, as that provides predictability and clarity for the other team members on what is expected. However, when things are too predictable they can run the risk of stagnating, and losing efficiency (for example, if people become bored with repetitive tasks). If you are working on a long-term initiative it may not be a bad thing to introduce a change to the routine. This can be done by swapping people’s responsibilities or positions on the team, or by changing how team meetings are managed. For example, you could introduce a scenario where every fourth team meeting has no agenda and people simply talk about what is on their mind (including non-work issues). 
  • Have metrics – the old adage is true, if it is not measured it will not happen. As a leader you need to be able to objectively illustrate progress towards the goal. You need to be very clear with your team and stakeholders as to what success looks like. How it will be measured? Both hard and soft measures are needed, and the metrics must be available for all of the team to see.

Reflective exercise:

What is my leadership style?

Undertake a 360o survey to get feedback from employees, peers and stakeholders.  Having received the feedback, go through it with a coach or mentor and put together a development plan that will enable you to continue to leverage your strengths and address any change that you would like to make.