What Makes You a Good Leader? The 5 Characteristics of Good Leadership (According to Science)

11 Apr ‘23
6 min
Work performance
Lisanne van Marrewijk
Reviewed by psychologist Clara Isabell Slawik
Everyone is different. What makes you a good leader is partly to do with the team that you’re leading, the environment you’re in, and who you are as a person. However, according to research, there are still a number of characteristics that strong leaders all have in common. 


What distinguishes a leader from a strong leader? Backed up by academic sources, psychologist Clara Isabell Slawik sheds some light on leadership.


What is good leadership?


Good leadership consists of two elements:


  1. Advancing the team
  2. Guiding people


Clara explains: “You often see people promoted to leadership roles because they’re ambitious, focused and forward-thinking. These are good qualities to have, but you’re often overlooking the human element here.” 


The result is that many leaders end up seeking support to understand why management is so exhausting. 


“This isn’t so much to do with the number of tasks, but mainly because they’re suddenly responsible for other people,” explains the psychologist. This is what makes the role distinct and challenging, but sometimes also difficult and tiring.


So, there are two sides to good leadership. And both sides require specific qualities. 


Clara: “On the one hand, it’s important to be ambitious and innovative. As a leader, you need to be prepared to literally take the lead and make choices.” 


“On the other hand, it’s essential to be self-aware, to set boundaries, to show resilience and to be willing to change your perspective regarding other people’s situations and emotions.”


6 characteristics of good leadership


Research by Gallup shows that a quarter of employees don’t feel connected to their organisations as a result of poor leadership. The result is reduced productivity, lower efficiency, and increased staff turnover.


As a leader, the following qualities help you to develop strong relationships, build trust and respect, create a transparent and open company culture, and lead your team through uncertain times and periods of change.


1. Effective leaders are self-aware and prioritise their own well-being and development


“Effective leadership starts with having the ability to believe in yourself,” writes Radhika Kapur in his research into the characteristics of effective leadership. The first step to being a good leader is being a good leader to yourself. 


Strong personal leadership – the way that you live your own life – sets the foundation for how you lead others, as we wrote in an earlier article. In order to be a good leader, you first need to really get to know yourself.


It’s also important to be resilient, emphasises Clara. And you do this by prioritising your own mental health. For example, research shows that leaders who make time for themselves every morning, set clear intentions, and plan their tasks well, are better at leading.


It’s also important to set clear boundaries, and that starts with yourself and knowing what your own strengths and weaknesses are.


2. Effective leaders prioritise the development and well-being of other people


It’s also important to focus on your team’s development and well-being. Nobody functions well when they’re stressed out, tense, or uncertain. As a leader, you can support your team here by creating a safe and open team culture.


You do this through actions like showing trust, complimenting people on their work, and discouraging overworking. For example, point out to people when they’ve worked enough and it’s time to relax. Explain that relaxation is essential if you want to keep performing at a high level.


“Train people well enough so they can leave, but treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” – Richard Branson


These are essential ingredients for a positive and open company culture where people feel good about themselves and enjoy going to work. This is also emphasised by Teresa Goode, professor of the leadership program at Northeastern University.


Delegating, advising, and coaching are important aspects of this, according to Goode. Clara confirms this and adds: “As a leader, you need to be prepared to find a balance between being a leader and keeping a certain distance from your team on the one hand and, being a mentor who keeps close by on the other hand.” 


By being simultaneously assertive and empathetic, and giving your team the confidence to do difficult things, you’ll lay a good foundation for others using this approach and create a strong team culture. 


Goode: “Completing difficult tasks helps teams to gain confidence and to grow.”


3. Effective leaders communicate often, clearly, and powerfully 


A strong leader communicates often and in different ways, such as in team meetings, one-on-one conversations, emails, and calls. As a leader, you need to make sure that you’re getting the message across. This is according to research carried out by American leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.


Communicating regularly and clearly ensures that everyone is aware of goals, tasks, and expectations. “Is anybody in your team not up to speed? Then you probably haven’t communicated your expectations properly,” emphasises Goode.


Please note: It’s equally important to listen and show compassion. Take time to compassionately listen to other people, ask questions, and really understand what they mean. 


Clara: “You don’t just want to be empathetic; you also want to show compassion. You want to look at situations from the other person’s perspective and act accordingly.”


4. Effective leaders innovate and experiment


In order to stay in business and keep ahead of the competition, it’s essential to innovate and experiment. As a leader, it’s your job to spark the kind of curiosity and enthusiasm that’s necessary for innovation. 


You can do this as a leader by encouraging people to try new things, to embrace making mistakes and see them as learning opportunities, and to challenge (un)written rules, explains Professor Anthony Mayo at Harvard Business School


5. Effective leaders have a strategic vision


“As a leader, it’s important to look ahead and maintain an overview, but also to get stuck in when needed,” explains Clara.


You want to engage with where the organisation is going and what you can do to get there. That requires flexibility and innovation.


“A strong leader is also decisive,” Clara says firmly. This decisiveness sets the foundation for carrying out a strategic plan and a strategic vision. So, make sure you can back up the decisions you make.


6. Effective leaders have integrity 


“One of the most important characteristics of a strong leader is integrity. As an employee, you want somebody standing next to you who you can trust,” explains Clara.


Also, research by an American consultancy company shows that three-quarters of employees view integrity as the most important quality in a strong leader. Employees want to be able to assume that, whatever happens, their manager will stand behind them and treat them fairly.


“I believe that a leader who really trusts their team in whatever they do is the best kind of leader. Because taking the lead is one thing, but having a rapport with people and trusting them, and having them trust you back, is something else,” continues the psychologist. 


“The ability to balance power and accountability can set successful leaders apart from ineffective ones”, writes Harvard Business School.


“Ultimately, we’re all human”


One of the most important things to keep reminding yourself of is that we’re all only human. Humans make mistakes, feel insecure sometimes, and have good and bad days.


“We might seem different, but ultimately we have the same needs,” emphasises Clara. “We all want to be understood, to belong, to feel heard, to be safe, and to feel connected to other people.”


Is there a team member you don’t understand? Ask them to share their perspective and try to look at the situation from the other person’s point of view. Ask yourself how you would feel in a situation like this. And importantly: show compassion, even if you still don’t understand.


Becoming a better leader


How can you develop these qualities? “By having patience and not putting too much pressure on yourself,” believes Clara. 


“Nobody functions very well when they have too much weight on their shoulders. And let’s face it: a leader often has two roles in one and it usually takes time to make that your own and to find a way to balance it. No matter how much you read about leadership, you only really learn it by doing it.”


Also, remember that you’re not alone. Clara: “Discuss your experiences and challenges with other leaders. These “second-hand” experiences can provide different insights that will help you and other people to progress.” 


By simply talking openly about your insecurities and challenges, you’ll advance further than you would have expected.


Want to grow as a leader? Then start working with a psychologist. A psychologist can help you to:


  • Set boundaries and find balance
  • Recognise and utilise your talents
  • Increase your self-awareness and build resilience
  • Look at situations from a different perspective
  • Communicate better 
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