What makes a successful leader?

Even the most cursory review of leadership theory and research over the past century is likely to make your head spin. On one hand, some managers probably think that the myriad of approaches to effective leadership means theory has failed to answer the million-dollar question “what makes a great leader?” After all, how is a practicing manager expected to make sense of all these theories?

One the other hand, other managers have embraced what is most useful to them from the theory, even though it might not be definitive, and achieved extraordinary results. In short, leadership theories have a lot to offer aspiring and existing leaders. Let’s take a closer look.

Traits and leadership

Supporters of trait theory, which emerged in the early 20th century, claim leaders are different to non-leaders, because they possess certain innate character traits.

Kirkpatrick and Locke (1996) identify six traits which make leaders differ from non-leaders, including:

  • Drive;
  • The desire to achieve;
  • Honesty/integrity;
  • Self-confidence;
  • Cognitivemability; and
  • Knowledge of the business.

Other, less important traits include charisma, creativity/originality and flexibility.

Similarly, Dubrin, Dalgleish and Miller (2006) draw together the vast collection of traits associated with this theory into two distinct categories:  general personality traits and task-related personality traits.  General personality traits contribute to success in a work and personal context and include:

  • Self-confidence;
  • Trustworthiness;
  • Extroversion;
  • Assertiveness;
  • Emotional stability;
  • Enthusiasm;
  • Sense of humour
  • Warmth; and
  • A high tolerance for frustration.

Task-related personality traits are associated with task accomplishment and include:

  • Courage;
  • Locus of control;
  • Passion;
  • Emotional intelligence;
  • Flexibility; and
  • Adaptability.

A significant body of evidence exists to show that traits do matter. For example, studies by Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) and Goleman (1998) show leaders are different from non-leaders and traits do have a consistent impact on leader effectiveness.

Still, many authors have criticised the trait approach to leadership for being too simplistic. It does not tell us which traits are the most important in which situations, or the amount of the trait required. Nor is there universal agreement amongst trait theorists as to which traits contribute to effective leadership.

At this point, the behavioural and contingency theories of leadership come in to play.

Behavioural and Contingency theories of leadership

The behavioural school of thought endorses the idea that successful organisational leaders routinely exhibit certain behaviours.  This main impact of this theory, when it emerged in the 1950s, was the notion that leadership was not necessarily an inborn trait but a methodology that could be taught to employees. What a great relief this was for the many aspiring leaders out there concerned they lacked the right character traits to be successful!

Following a 25-year longitudinal study at Harvard University, Kouzes and Posner found that exemplary leaders demonstrate five (5) core practices:

Model the Way

Actions speak louder than words: ''Leaders' deeds are far more important than their words...Exemplary leaders go first. They go first by setting the example through daily actions that demonstrate they are deeply committed to their beliefs.'' Exemplary leaders have a philosophy about their organisation, leadership and teamwork. They know what their own values are, particularly around how people are treated.

Inspire a shared vision

If you view leading as a journey, vision is simply the destination you want others to join you in pursuing. Leaders cannot expect to be followed if they have no idea where they want to go. Exemplary leaders envision the future, dreaming how they would like it to be. When that vision is clear to them, they can communicate it enthusiastically to those whose buy-in they need.

Challenge the process

Being a leader entails initiating ''a change from the status quo”. Effective leaders are always experimenting with new ways of doing things, searching for “opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve”. According to Kouzes and Posner, ''the leader's primary contribution is in the recognition of good ideas, the support of those ideas, and the willingness to challenge the system to get new products...adopted''.

Enable others to act

This practice acknowledges that successful leadership and accomplishments are not the result of a single person. Effective leaders listen to ideas, treat people with respect, foster teamwork and collaboration, and encourage others to exceed their own expectations. A high level of trust exists and people have the freedom to make mistakes, rectify these and drive success.

Encourage and recognise

Successful leaders know that colleagues require and deserve recognition and celebration. Effective leaders find innovative ways to celebrate goals that are reached, and encourage and motivate teams and individuals. This practice fosters a strong sense of community.


The contingency (or situational) theory of leadership acknowledges the interaction between a leader’s traits, a leader’s behaviours and the situation in which the leader is leading.

History shows us that leaders can lose power and influence as the situation changes, for example, Winston Churchill in a victorious Britain immediately after World War II. The same applies to leaders in organisations.  Applying a certain set of traits and behaviours in one organisational context might lead to great success. Try the same approach in a different organisational setting or situation, where employees have different needs or environmental factors have shifted, and the same leader might fail miserably.

So, what does this all mean in terms of effective leadership? And are we any further along the path to understanding what makes a successful leader?

I think so. What the broad and varied body of theory and research on leadership tells us is that there are many appropriate ways to lead or styles of leadership. Traits are important. But traits alone are not sufficient for successful organisational leadership. Leaders who possess the requisite traits must behave in a certain way and take certain actions to be successful. And there’s one more important point.

What makes a good leader truly outstanding is a deep understanding of their traits and behavioural preferences and the ability to adapt their leadership approach to suit the specific organisational context and circumstances they find themselves in at any given time. Put simply, great leaders understand that “one size doesn’t fit all”. They think about the culture of their organisation, the characteristics of their followers (or team) and the external environment, and shape their style and behaviour accordingly.

If you are looking for ways to improve your personal and professional effectiveness or take your leadership performance to the next level, Best Practice Consulting can help you. Contact us today at

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