Future Leaders: What makes a good leader?

What makes a good leader? Someone who is approachable? Motivational? Challenging? Someone who has the ability to listen? To stay calm under pressure? To lead by example?

These traits were discussed and dissected with Professor Paul Willis during the Future Leaders’ first academic module on ‘Exploring Leadership’ – and it’s perhaps not surprising that the conclusion we came to was that being a good leader doesn’t equate to just one of these traits.

It is, instead, a combination of them all, in a toolkit that flexes depending on the situation and team around you. As leaders it is vital to adapt.

Emotional intelligence

When we think about what makes a good leader, we often begin with ourselves and the traits we have, or aspire to have. But according to Goleman, who wrote ‘What makes a good leader?’ in the Harvard Business Review in 1998, self-awareness is just the first of five attributes of emotional intelligence that are essential to becoming an effective leader – and they do not all relate to oneself.

Emotional intelligence is being aware of your own emotions – to better manage your interactions with others, while also being aware of the emotions of others – so you can take their emotions into account when seeking to connect with them.

He cites five attributes of emotional intelligence that cover our own emotions and the emotions of others:

EmpathyManagement of others
Social skillManagement of others

It’s perhaps not surprising therefore that the best leaders are emotionally intelligent. They understand that emotions – and the impact of those emotions – are integral to being a good leader.

Natural v. Trained leadership

Pick up an object near you; a pen, a mug, your phone. Which hand did you use? Chances are it was your dominant one; because that’s what’s most natural to you. And, it’s the same with leadership.

There are lots of different approaches to leadership – and we will all have a natural, dominant style. You might be process-driven and motivated by outcomes, or naturally more interested in supporting your team’s development or wellbeing. You might feel that you’re too friendly with those you manage, or not friendly enough. You might be self-aware, but not have much empathy for those around you.

All of us will have a dominant style, often shaped by our own principles and values of what we believe makes a good leader, and we will naturally use that approach. But, how often do we think about the impact that style might have on the team around us? What if that particular style isn’t working, or not having the desired effect?

In that case, it might be that we need to adapt; to train ourselves to use other leadership styles. And, while this might not feel as natural – like picking up a coffee cup with the “wrong” hand – having a toolkit of styles that can be used in different situations and with different people might train us to become better leaders. As Professor Paul Willis says, we must become “ambidextrous leaders”.

Leaders are people-persons

The common theme that runs through all leadership styles is people. Leaders understand people. They interact effectively with others, they share their vision and inspire others, they work will all members of the team and grow future leaders not followers. They empower and encourage, and have a good understanding of their own values. They understand how their emotions impact them, and those around them, and so their emotions don’t appear to move too much – even if they are on the inside.

Everyone will develop their own leadership style but there is one thing that remains at the centre of good leadership, and that is an understanding of people.

Hayley Cook is Corporate Communications Officer at Portsmouth City Council and a member of the Future Leaders 2021 cohort.


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