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What makes a good leader?

About the author: Dr Albert Viljoen was a General Practitioner in South Africa for five years before seeking a move into work that was more holistic and integrative. Albert trained at The Coaching Center in Tokai, Cape Town, where he obtained his ICF ACT Diploma in Practitioner Coaching. He combines medical experience with coaching to achieve a deep understanding of someone else’s world.

Working in leadership is paradoxical.

It can be both incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging. Some of us get flung into leadership positions with no real experience or training. Others have been leading for years, leaving mixed reviews and a smattering of successes and failures in their wake. Some take to it like a duck to water.

In many ways leadership is not so dissimilar to parenting. You have days when you know exactly what you’re doing, and there are the days you feel like you’re flying by the seat of your pants.

It’s a tough one to define, leadership. It means different things to different people. Here are just a few definitions from some well known leaders:

  • “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximises the efforts of others toward the achievement of a greater good” – Roselinde Torres, Partner & MD, BCG
  • “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others” – Bill Gates
  • “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he/she wants to do it” – Dwight Eisenhower
  • “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus” – Martin Luther King Jr
  • “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less” – John Maxwell
  • “A Boss has the title, a leader has the people” – Simon Sinek

There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are people who lead. And different leaders will inhabit and emphasise different qualities. But when it comes to the basic core ingredients, leadership essentially consists of 3 elements:

  1. A purpose or goal
  2. The leader themselves
  3. The people who follow them

There’s always a purpose: something that needs to get done, a goal to reach. And then there’s you and at least one other person working to achieve it.

Now, the bigger question:

What are the qualities of good leadership?

There’s the leader, the purpose, and the followers. But good leadership is defined by the space between the three.

From experience, becoming a leader is much easier than being a good one.

Have a bit of charisma, be confident enough to speak up, communicate well with others and people might choose to follow you naturally. Sometimes even blindly.

We want someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about, who seems to know where they’re going, so we feel comfortable enough to follow them. But being a good leader requires different qualities than those that might inspire people to start following you in the first place.

It’s a bit like dating, in that what makes you seem like a good catch initially – that first spark, those charming, attractive traits – doesn’t necessarily make you a good life partner in the long run.

A classic example from the coaching room, and one we see quite often: we have an almost 30 year old developer (let’s call him Matt) log into their Sanctus session, eyes wide, looking like they’ve just seen a ghost.

“Hey Matt, how are you doing today?”

“Well, I just got offered a promotion to be a manager.”

Your first response might be to say “Congratulations! You’ve worked so hard for it” but, noticing Matt’s expression, body language, and general demeanour, we instead decide to go with: “So, a promotion: how do you feel about it?”

“Well… overwhelmed to be honest. I’m supposed to be excited and proud of myself, but all I can think of is how I’m going to screw it up. I’m good with coding, but I’m not that great with people. Well, I’m good with people, but can I lead a team? I feel like maybe I have Imposter syndrome…”

And so the session unfolds.

Matt’s a great developer, he’s good at what he does, he gets along with his team members, and so his boss wants to promote him. But does he have what it takes to make a good leader?

In all likelihood, he might! But he’s not wrong to question it.

It raises an important question when we think about appointing leaders. What are the qualities we need to hire? As in: what do you need to sustain a leadership position, versus what merely looks or sounds impressive in an interview.

What makes a good leader?

We know there is more than one way to lead. Psychologist Daniel Goleman defines 6 styles of leadership. And if you really start going down rabbit holes on the internet, you’ll find as many as 12 (or more) styles of leadership.

You may have a unique flavour or style of leadership: maybe you’re more authoratitive, or delegative, maybe you’re collaborative, transformative, maybe you’re great with people but struggle committing to a clear direction.

Irrespective of style, the heart of good leadership requires a few key, consistent qualities.

If we go back to the 3 elements of leadership – leaders, followers, and purpose – good leadership is determined by the quality of the relationship between the three. It’s about having really good relational dynamics between myself, my people, and our shared purpose.

Do I inspire them? Do I cultivate a sense of trust? Can I give them a sense of confidence in my skills and my ability?

The real skills that define good leaders have little to do with the industry they work in or the specifics of their role, but rather with their ability to cultivate, strengthen, and maintain the relationship between their followers and their purpose.

And perhaps more importantly – this is also the area that gets neglected most often – their relationship with themselves.

The five pillars of leadership

From a combination of our own experience in the coaching room and what the latest research tells us, we’ve developed our own approach to leadership coaching.

Connected Leadership is for people leaders to develop capabilities beyond conventional leadership training. We work with managers at all levels on the skills needed to lead with both confidence and care in the modern working world.

Through our work we’ve noticed five essential qualities a leader needs in order to be the best source of support possible for both themselves and their team. These are:

1. Personal wellbeing

Good leaders prioritise their own wellbeing, conscious they need to be well in order to lead well. It’s what they tell you as part of the safety announcements when you get on a plane. “In the event the cabin loses pressure, put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.”

We need to know how to take care of ourselves if we want to take care of those who follow us. This is really the first and most fundamental skill we need to develop as a leader: a proactive approach to supporting our own wellbeing. Because when that’s honed, it enables us to…

2. Thrive in change

The ability to stay resilient, even when circumstances shift and the future remains unpredictable. This has been a key theme for everyone these last few years.

Our sense of uncertainty has been amplified by the pandemic, but change is really just an everyday part of life. Good leaders have the ability to plan for what might happen, but also adapt when something knocks us off course or delivers a curveball.

Looking after your own wellbeing and having the ability to navigate change is what enables us to…

3. Cultivate empathic connection

Did you know why 79% of employees will quit their jobs? It isn’t money. Or career progression. But a lack of appreciation from leaders.

You need to inspire people to follow you. To do that, you need to show them you actually care about them. Humans are sensitive beings. We can pick up when someone is being insincere and often take for granted just how attuned we and others are to insincerity.

Good leaders know they need to show appreciation, but there needs to be some sincerity for the relationship to flourish. Which brings us to our fourth point…

4. Authentic leadership

Authenticity breeds trust. And trust in leaders is the highest-ranked link to employee engagement.

Employees care more about whether you’re authentic than they care about organisational culture or career growth. One of our main priorities as leaders is to make sure employees know who they are, and that they can show up as themselves. It is this that enables the last point…

5. Purposeful engagement

When we maintain authentic, empathic connections, and sustain not only our own wellbeing but that of those around us, we’ll have the strength and trust to work towards a common goal successfully.

If we know we can trust our leaders, that they’re able to navigate changes, and they’re able to take care of themselves, it is a reminder and a model for those around us to take care of ourselves.

Knowing what makes a good leader is one thing. Aligning those expectations with the reality of day to day operations is another thing entirely.

Connected Leadership is built around these five principles. Learn more about it here.

This is a writeup of key talking points from a recent Sanctus event: an open and anonymous space for people in leadership to come together and share experiences, challenges, and opportunities.

It’s part of a series of free, interactive spaces designed to support connection and reflection, based on a variety of topics we’re all likely to experience at some point in our working lives. Impostorism, navigating career change, finding purpose, balancing work and life and absolutely everything in between.

Through specific prompts and expert guidance from an accredited Sanctus Coach, individuals reflect on what’s going on in their lives and connect with others in the same boat. Group reflection spaces boost wellbeing, empathy, and self awareness. At the same time as reducing feelings of stress, depression, anxiety, and isolation. 

Also: it’s just important to remind yourself every now and again that you’re not alone.

We’ll be running a number of these events in 2023. Spaces will be limited so it’s first come, first served. If you’d like to be first to know about the next topic we address and when we’ll be doing it, sign up to our newsletter here, or check out our Leadership Development page for more information.