What makes a good leader?

By Dave Hickey

We don’t have to look far to identify examples of bad leadership at least in the public arena. Or at the very least leadership in bad faith – that is promising to do one thing and promptly doing something to the contrary.

Golfgate, Boris’ Brexit tactics, and much of the political rhetoric on all sides here, in the US and across Europe have undermined our faith in political leadership – unless we can all move to New Zealand!

A survey this year by Thrive Global confirms that employees trust their employers more than either politicians or the media.

But what makes a good leader? What kind of business leader can repay that trust?

A report from McKinsey from 10 years ago identifies five dimensions of what it calls centred leadership. Associated research at the time shows that leaders who mastered even one of these skills are twice as likely as those who mastered none to feel that they can lead through change; masters of all five were more than four times as likely.*


We all recognize leaders who infuse their life and work with a sense of meaning. They convey energy and enthusiasm because the goal is important to them personally, because they are actively enjoying its pursuit, and because their work plays to their strengths.

Whatever the source of meaning, centred leaders often talk about how their purpose appeals to something greater than themselves and the importance of conveying their passion to others.

Frequently that sense of meaning is embedded in them and their organisations through the use of story.

Positive Framing

In times of disruption, like today, it is a natural reaction to focus only on survival to the exclusion of everything else. Yes, survival is vital, but once the organisation is stabilised fear can take over. This response equips only for survival not for coming up with creative solutions.

Fortunately, we can all become aware of what triggers our fears and learn to work through them to reframe what is happening more constructively. Once we have mastered reframing, we can help others learn this skill, seeding the conditions that result in a safe environment where all employees are inspired to give their best.


Top-down communication while efficient is becoming less effective for leaders, particularly in times of uncertainty.

Today’s excellent leaders focus on building a network of people within and outside the organisation who can offer meaningful input and support in solving problems. This works in even the smallest organisations because it engages key influencers who can then be part of the communication network.

Engage with risk

One of the most frequent reasons given for failure to plan is that there are too many uncertainties with unquantifiable risks for any strategy.

That’s hardly surprising: risk aversion and fear run rampant during times of change. Leaders who are good at acknowledging and countering these emotions can help their people summon the courage to act and thus unleash tremendous potential.

But to acknowledge the existence of risk, CEOs must admit they don’t, in fact, have all the answers – something which often goes against the image they have worked hard to build.

Managing Energy

Sustaining change requires the enthusiasm and commitment of large numbers of people across an organisation for an extended period of time.

All too often, though, a change effort starts with a big bang of vision statements and detailed initiatives, only to see energy peter out. The opposite, when work escalates maniacally through a culture of “relentless enthusiasm,” is equally problematic.

Either way, leaders will find it hard to sustain energy and commitment within the organisation unless they systemically restore their own energy (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual), as well as create the conditions and serve as role models for others to do the same.


*“The value of centered leadership: McKinsey Global Survey results,” on mckinseyquarterly.com).