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Essential qualities of effective leaders

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A single illuminated light bulb, showcasing leadership qualities, stands out among a group of unlit bulbs.

Characteristics of successful leaders

Explore the key characteristics of successful leaders and delve into the science behind effective leadership, especially transformational leaders.

Discover the cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence, and personality traits that distinguish outstanding leaders, and learn how to harness and cultivate these qualities to drive success in your organisation.

From problem-solving prowess to values alignment, we offer valuable insights and actionable tips for leaders.

The building blocks of effective leaders

Watch the video to understand the key qualities that effective leaders possess and the role of cognitive abilities, emotional management, personality and values in predicting leadership success.

Step 3 - How to recruit the leaders of the future

Step 1 - What defines a leader? Biology, behaviour and wellbeing

If you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

What makes up an effective leader?

Hi, Andrew from SACS and welcome to video number two in our six video series on creating the disability sector leaders of the future.

In this one, we’ll be talking about the intrinsic characteristics of people who are likely to be effective leaders in any sector, not just the disability sector that will then lead on to recruiting future leaders, modelling the leaders of future disability sector profiles and leadership, and, finally, development of leaders.

But to focus on what we want to cover in this session, I just want to start off by saying, really, this session is all about the characteristics that people need to have to be effective leaders.

The neurology of transformational leaders

And I want to start off with a neurological description.

So, we’re talking about a neural signature here of what’s called transformational leaders.

Now, just to briefly explain what we mean by transformational leadership, there’s a model of leadership, which is sort of inclusive, empowering, which is very focused on creating clarity about where the team needs to go and where the job needs to go and where the organisation needs to go, and which is supportive to leaders, and it’s called transformational leadership.

So, in subsequent videos, particularly the last couple, I’ll be drilling into the question of transformational leadership in much more detail, but it can be demonstrated that transformational leadership is just about the most effective leadership profile, the most effective leadership model that has been researched in the world of organisational psychology so far.

There’s a lot of research into transformational leadership, and it’s very effective.

But there’s a neural signature for transformational leadership.

Key transformational characteristics

So one of the neural signature components of transformational leadership is frontal lobe dominance.

And so a person who has high levels of frontal lobe dominance is somebody who is able to reflect on what they’re likely to do.

It’s somebody who’s good at self-regulation.

It’s somebody who is not dominated by their emotions, but manage their emotions appropriately to the situation.

It’s also somebody who makes good wise decisions about responding to other people’s emotions in such a way in a measured way, so that the best outcome is reached.

So a person who has a strong frontal lobe dominance is the sort of person who’s thoughtful, who’s understanding, who’s strategic, and who can create a vision for people.

And you’ll notice that in the diagram, the limbic system in red here, that’s also taken into account here, because when a person has a high level of frontal lobe dominance, they’re able to manage the activities of the limbic system.

They tend not to get, let’s say, unaccountably, or unmanageably angry, or anxious, or depressed, or any of those kinds of things.

So there is a neural pathway, a neural profile for a person who is a good transformational leader.

Now there are some other key characteristics about what we know about a person who has such transformational leadership characteristics better complex thinking capability, cognitive flexibility, which means that they can respond to a range of different thinking challenges.

They tend to be able to manage their emotions, as I described earlier.

Cognitive abilities of good leaders

The next thing I want to talk about is that there’s a cognitive profile, which is to say, if you look at people who are led by somebody, and if you take the definition I gave in video number one, a person who is an effective leader is somebody who people want to follow, people don’t tend to want to follow people who are less cognitively able than they are.

So they don’t like to follow people who are not as smart as they are, and people will, in fact, potentially get resentful if they’re being led by somebody who proves not to be as smart as they are.

So, on balance, leaders are often smarter than their colleagues, maybe not all of them, but on average, they tend to be smarter than their colleagues, because people like to follow people who they think can add value for them intellectually.

Now, three forms of cognitive ability tend to matter at work.

One is verbal, which is words.

Second is numerical, which has to do with numbers.

And the third is abstract reasoning, and abstract reasoning kind of relates back to what I was saying earlier about the neural pathways of transformational leadership.

Abstract reasoning is the degree to which I can see the implications of things.

People who are high in abstract reasoning tend to come up with good solutions, but they also tend to be better at seeing the implications of things, of strategizing things, of making plans.

So abstract reasoning is a very powerful form of cognitive ability.

And it is fair to say on balance that leaders are smart in comparison with the people who follow them.

Key leadership personality traits

Now, personality.

Personality has a very big impact on a person’s leadership capability.

And there’s a couple of things that are really powerful in terms of personality and how it relates to a person’s likelihood of being accepted as a leader.

And the first of these is the characteristic of what’s called honesty-humility.

Honesty-humility is a personality characteristic that causes a person to be straightforward, truthful, and not arrogant.

Well, not surprisingly, people tend to gravitate towards leaders who are like this who are truthful, who are not manipulative or cunning, and who want what’s best for the organisation and for the colleagues.

They’re often not highly emotional.

So emotionality, ideally, should be as low as possible.

Good leaders are emotionally stable.

If you’ve ever had the experience of reporting to somebody who tends to fly off the handle, overreact emotionally to things that happen, it’s just not reassuring.

And so, we know even from studies amongst animals that when animals turn to a leader, it’s often the calm animal that they will turn to rather than somebody who tends to be emotionally unstable or flighty in the way that they respond to things.

Extroversion, so, there is no doubt about it, more extroverts are leaders, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have good introverted leaders, but it is fair to say that if you measure the leaders across the world, this study’s been done multiple times, most leaders are extroverts, but good leaders can be introverts, particularly if the cohort that they’re leading are also introverted.

So, if you get an IT person who’s an introvert and has a lot of introverted staff, the simpatico between those two can be very good in a leadership sense.

So you don’t have to be an extrovert, but it is fair to say that most leaders are extroverts.


Agreeableness is very important.

And this personality profile that you’re seeing here is from the HEXACO model of personality.

And in the HEXACO model of personality, agreeableness means not angry.

People do not like to report to somebody who is intrinsically an angry person.

That’s not a favourable experience.

So good leaders tend to be approachable, tend to be people who aren’t naturally angry, cranky, difficult people.


A really crucial driver of leadership capacity is the characteristic of conscientiousness.

People who are conscientious are the type of people who are organised, hardworking, planned, and also have the capacity to self-regulate.

They have the capacity to think about what they’re going to do and to plan rather than just act impulsively.

Conscientiousness is a very big driver of leadership capability.

I mean, after all, would we want to report to somebody or be led by somebody who was demonstrably less active and more lazy than we are?

No, human beings seek to report to somebody who is committed and energetic and well-planned.

So, conscientiousness is a driver of leadership capability, and so it’s openness to experience.

So openness to experience is the capability of being broadminded, welcoming of new solutions.

Now, depending on what the job is, so, for instance, if you’re in a very procedural kind of a job where people are doing the same stuff over and over again, well, maybe open-mindedness is not that important for a leader, but if you’re in an evolving world and you need to come up with solutions that are going to evolve to match that world, well, of course, openness to experience is a very important leadership tendency.

And so, you don’t, at the very least, want people to be too low on openness to experience, because, again, if you’ve ever had the experience of reporting to somebody who clearly is a naysayer, well, no, we want to keep doing it like we always have, that of itself is not very strong for people’s motivation or engagement.

So it is good to report to somebody who has the capacity to take on new solutions and to welcome them.

The importance of values


A person’s value set is an extremely strong determinant of a person’s likelihood of being an effective leader.

So, firstly, I’ll mention values match.

If I am a very ambitious person and I report to somebody who doesn’t share that value, obviously, there’s a potential for leadership mismatch there.

I’m unlikely to want to report to somebody who is not going to help me to match my ambition to achievement.

Secondly, let’s imagine that somebody’s an extremely, strongly social justice-orientated person.

You can see that on the values profile here.

Social justice is a strong value, and here, you can see this candidate is not particularly high on that, but that’s social justice orientation.

So if I report to somebody who shares that, well, again, you have a simpatico with that person.

You have a relationship in terms of your value set with that person.

So in short, we like to be led by people who stand for something similar to what we stand for, but of its nature, you can see that some of these values lead themselves to leadership.

Autonomy and leadership


So people who are naturally leaders are often people who like to have autonomy.

People who are naturally ambitious tend to be more naturally inclined to be leaders.

People who seek or authority are more naturally inclined to be leaders.

Whereas some other values, like, for instance, safety.

enjoyment, which is all about the pleasure that you get at work, those kinds of things, they’re not that important for leadership, but they’re certainly no where near as likely to drive a leadership ambition and a leadership tendency as a commitment to things like autonomy, authority, and ambition.

Now, just to describe the difference between values and personality, the main difference is that personality has a very strong genetic component to it.

People tend to inherit their personality.

Some would say 50%, some would say 70%.

I’m probably more at the 70% end myself, largely due to recent research.

The difference from values, values are goals that we learn in the course of our lives, and they can end will change quite markedly as we evolve our life trajectory.

So, for instance, the degree to which we are concerned about safety, very low for young people, tends to increase as we age, largely I suspect, because we get more things to care about and more responsibilities, which make us more safety-conscious.

So values can change.

Personality tends to be very persistent as does cognitive ability.

How smart you are doesn’t tend to change much over the course of life until you get to a certain age where cognitive ability starts to decline, and certainly that comes to all of us sooner or later.

Good leaders want to lead

Now, another characteristic, another intrinsic characteristic of good leaders, of leaders who people want to follow, is that, in general, leaders want to lead.

They’re the type of people who see value in taking on a leadership role, and they don’t tend to resist leadership roles.

So, if you seek to cause a person to be a leader who really doesn’t want to do it, then that’s a problem of itself.

Yes, that has worked out on occasions.

But most of the time, what happens is that people gravitate towards people, let’s say, when they’re at school, or when they’re in their social groups, or sporting, or whatever, people start to turn to a person as a leader, and that person naturally starts to take it on.

And that’s how, at a young age, we tend to start to build our leadership capability.

It’s like a practise effect as we start to expose ourselves to leadership, then we build our capabilities to do so.

So, that’s video number two, the intrinsic characteristic of leaders.

Number three, what we’ll be doing is talking about recruiting for future leaders.

So, I’ll be talking in that video a little bit about when you recruit somebody, you can recruit somebody who is suited to the job that they’re being recruited for, or you can recruit somebody who is suited to the job that they’re being recruited for and for future leadership.

We’ll be giving you some tips in the next video about how to do that.

Ready to create effective future leaders?

Step 3 - How to recruit the leaders of the future

Step 1 - What defines a leader? Biology, behaviour and wellbeing

If you’d like some help to make your leaders more effective in the workplace, contact us about our 360 Degree Feedback tool.

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