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What makes you a good leader in 2021: the definitive guide to leadership

Practical checklist of top leadership qualities from our speakers and authors 

pat in crowd

(Pat Lencioni often tells leaders not to be "wusses" and to do the tough stuff. Image: The Growth Faculty)

 Actor Bette Davis once said 'Old age ain't no place for sissies.'

In 2021 being a leader ain't no place for sissies either!

  • COVID-19's stunning impact is still being felt.
  • You might be confused, burnt out or overwhelmed.
  • Or seeing mental health issues triggered by the pandemic.

We're already seeing the relief at sharing honest stories like these from the delegates in our online masterclasses.

Seems it's normal to feel abnormal in the next normal.

So, here we've pulled the latest research on good leadership from the best business books and global thought leaders on what's important to grow and reach your full potential as a leader in 2021.

Table of Contents

Here's a list of what's covered in this leader guide: 

  1. What's the best definition of leadership?
  2. Management vs leadership
  3. What is leadership in 2021?  
  4. What makes a good leader?  
  5. Top 10 qualities of great leaders  
  6. Best leadership qualities for attracting and retaining top talent 
  7. Learning to lead; the millennial leader in 2021 
  8. 5 soft skills of leadership 
  9. Servant leadership and ethical leadership  
  10. How your leadership style affects those around you 
  11. Questions good leaders should be asking 
  12. Women in leadership  
  13. Top 10 books on leadership 
  14. Leadership quotes from the world’s best 
  15. Summary
  16. References

malala yousafzai on stage for The Growth Faculty

(Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and moderator Annabel Crabb at The Growth Faculty event

What's the best definition of leadership?

Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai may always be "that girl shot in the head by the Taliban."

But as a living definition of leadership, Malala is a good choice.

That's because she inspires others to help achieve her vision.

See our favourite quotes from Malala

The definition of leadership in one sentence is:

  • Leadership is inspiring and motivating a group of people to exert themselves to help achieve a common goal. 

Leadership guru Jim Collins chooses to define leadership this way:

  • Leadership is the art of getting people to do what must be done.

I also like Facebook executive and author Julie Zhuo's leadership definition:

  • To get great outcomes from a group of people. 

And your dictionary definition of leadership probably reads: 

  • The action of leading a group of people or an organisation.

One study said definitions of leadership were:

  • Like "a lot of blind men describing a moving elephant. Each definition is accurate yet none sufficiently describes the whole."

But, on the whole, defining leadership centres around inspiring followers to follow you, wherever you may choose to go.

It's about you and it's not about you - all at once.

Management vs Leadership

"If you are manager, figure out how to be a leader, if you are a leader - figure out how to shine a light on problems." - Seth Godin

There's a lot to be figured out at the top.

You don't have time to be figuring out the wrong stuff.

For this reason, it's handy to know the key differences between leaders and managers:

  • Leaders broadly are big picture and managers broadly are small picture. 
  • Leaders focus on goals, and managers focus on tasks.

"Not all managers exercise leadership.....Not all leaders manage," says academic Fred Lunenberg.

Business illustrator cartoon of manager showing road

(Image: Business Illustrator

I like this from the Melbourne University handbook on leadership: 

  • Managers maintain the status quo efficiently but leaders help individuals, teams, organisations, and societies to do adaptive work.

It goes on to say that leadership is not a position but a process that can be learned. 

  • While management is learning the nuts and bolts, leadership is learning to lead individuals and teams through intrapersonal (i.e., self-awareness and self-management) and interpersonal (i.e., social awareness and social skill) development. 

And, because that's wordy, here's a terrific table:

Leadership vs Management


Thinking Process:

Leadership focuses on people   Management focuses on things

Leadership looks outward       Management looks inward

Goal Setting:

Leadership articulates a vision    Management executes plans

Leadership creates the future     Management improves the present

Leadership sees the forest       Management sees the trees

Employee Relations: 

Leadership empowers          Management controls

Leadership has colleagues      Managers have subordinates

Leadership trusts & develops    Management directs & coordinates


Leadership does the right things  Management does things right

Leadership creates change      Management manages change

         Leadership serves subordinates      Management serves superordinates [superiors]


Leadership uses influence      Management uses authority

Leadership uses conflict        Management avoids conflict

Leadership acts decisively      Management acts responsibly

(Source: Leadership versus Management: A Key Distinction—At Least in Theory, Fred C. Lunenburg Sam Houston State University)

As Stephen Covey explains in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

  • Managers are busy cutting the undergrowth of the jungle.
  • It's the leader who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the situation and yells down "Wrong jungle!"  

What is leadership in 2021?

It's more empathetic, that's for sure.

In 2020 we all got thrown into a washing machine. Autocratic leadership style went down the plug with the dirty water.

Leadership in 2021 serves followers rather than serving up fear to get results.  

“It’s about the presence, or absence, of followers.”  Marcus Buckingham, Nine Lies About Work.  

Buckingham (who headlines our 2021 Time for Transformation masterclass series) says no two leaders create followers in quite the same way - so followship is measurable but leadership is not.

marcus buckingham

According to Marcus Buckingham, we follow leaders who: 

  • Connect us to a mission we believe in.  
  • Clarify what’s expected of us. 
  • Surround us with excellence. 
  • Value us for our strengths. 
  • Challenge us to keep getting better. 
  • Give us confidence in the future.  

Leadership expert Stephen Scott, author of The 15 Disciplines, says you need to make others comfortable with you, so they’re productive.  

Academic, speaker and author, Dr Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead,  says the world needs leaders who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”   

Brene Brown on stage with Dare to Lead banner

At her event hosted by The Growth Faculty she said she wished leaders were choosing courage over comfort .

Courage to acknowledge their team members have feelings.  

"We have to attend to fears and feelings, otherwise we can’t attend to unproductive behaviour,”  she said. 

Leadership in 2021 requires a more human-centred approach to being the boss. 

Brene Brown vulnerability

“I know my life is better when I work from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can.” – Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

From the Top 30 Brené Brown Quotes for Leaders is this good reminder of this from her book Daring Greatly:

  • “It is human nature to want to feel worthy of love and belonging.” 

What makes a good leader?

Google “What makes a good leader?” in 2021 and you’ll be buried in 500 million or so articles. 

But Google’s own leadership coach, the late Bill Campbell (who also coached Steve Jobs), had one trait at the top of his list.  

  • Trust
  • “Bill knew that to get to great leadership you needed to build trust,” former Google executive Jonathan Rosenberg said in an interview with The Growth Faculty

Bill Campbell great leadership need to build trust

(Image: Trillion Dollar Coach subject Bill Campbell during a rare public interview with Brad Stone, a senior technology writer for Businessweek.)

Rosenberg said Bill let people see his own vulnerabilities, and then they shared their own.

"He understood the dynamics of how to pull people together as members of a team," Rosenberg told The Growth Faculty. 

Bill Campbell’s leadership must-haves: 

  • Get the management fundamentals right. 
  • Be willing to be coached. 
  • Get to know people. Bring love into the workplace. 
  • Develop friendships with those you work with.  
  • Run staff meetings to develop relationships.  

It's not about avoiding the hard stuff though.

A research article “What Makes a Good Leader” by Harvard Business School’s Deborah Blagg and Susan Young, lists:

4 points that signify a good leader  

  • Communication is key and a talent for simplicity; 
  • Telling the hard truths when appropriate; 
  • Being essentially both manager and leader; 
  • Remaining committed despite setbacks. 

Berkeley University’s executive education says good leadership comes from asking:

  • “How can I add value?”  

It says effective leaders:  

  • Take a diagnostic approach to situations. They have an evolved situational awareness and read social cues quickly and astutely. 
  • Engage a broad set of behavioural styles, depending on the situation. They demonstrate flexibility in their responses. 
  • Are committed to improvement. The best leaders take stock of events and ask “how could I have approached this situation better?”
  • They understand that becoming exceptional is a lifelong learning process

According to Brené Brown, the superpower of courageous leadership is curiosity.  

  • “If we have more questions than answers and show vulnerability, we’re taking the first step to understanding,” she told us in 2019.  

Think Again, Give and Take, and Originals author Adam Grant says good leaders think like scientists, using a skill he calls rethinking.

And, in The Infinite Game Simon Sinek shares his 5 qualities of a leader with an "infinite mindset" - one who's in it for the long haul.  

  1. They have vision, “a Just Cause.”   
  2. They do a lot of hard work to build trusting teams.   
  3. They understand their primary responsibility is to create an environment in which people can work at their natural best. “You’re responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.”  
  4. They view the other players in their industry "as Worthy Rivals, not just as competitors" and they learn from them.    
  5. They have the ability to change strategy “because they find a better way to advance their vision, even if it means short term pain.

Exceptional former CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi says what makes a good leader is continual improvement. 

"If you want to lift the performance of the organisation, you have to lift message to my team was always meet my bar, and that bar would constantly be moved up."

To summarise what makes a good leader:

  • A self-disciplined and empathetic all-rounder, with one eye on the business landscape, and the other firmly trained on the people in the organisation. 

Top 10 qualities of great leaders

  1. Strong people skills
  2. Visionary
  3. Team Builder
  4. Personable/Approachable
  5. Leads by example
  6. Passion and drive
  7. Good listener
  8. Develops people
  9. Empowers people
  10. Positive attitude

These are the traits from research data on 150,000 leaders conducted by Bob Anderson and William Adams, and published in Scaling Leadership.

But there's more to do to become a top (Level 5) leader.


jim collins on stage

Leadership research giant Jim Collins says it's also about ferocious resolve.

 "Level 5 leadership is not just about humility and modesty. It is equally about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great." - Jim Collins, Good to Great

Jim Collins says these are the traits of Level 5 leaders:

  • Display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will.
  • Are incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organisation and its purpose, not themselves.
  • Can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy.
  • Motivate the enterprise more with inspired standards than inspiring personality.

Before we leave the Top 10 qualities of great leaders, it's fair to say being a team builder is super-important.

scaling leadership and bob anderson

(Scaling Leadership author Bob Anderson talks leadership on The Growth Faculty-On Demand)

Team building is one key leadership strength from The Scaling Leadership study.

Jim Collins calls this "The right people on the bus" in Good to Great.  

His 3 truths about building the right team:

  • First, if you begin with “who,” you can more easily adapt to a fast-changing world.
  • Second, if you have the right people on your bus, you don’t need to worry about motivating them. The right people are self-motivated.
  • And third, if you have the wrong people on the bus, nothing else matters. You may be headed in the right direction, but you still won’t achieve greatness. Great vision with mediocre people still produces mediocre results.” 

Whitney Johnson in Multipliers says a good leader is a liberator not a tyrant.

  • "Liberators create an intense environment that requires people's best thinking and work. As a result, people offer their best and boldest thinking and give their best effort."

By contrast, she says tyrants:

  • "...create a tense environment that suppresses people's thinking and capability. As a result, people hold back, bring up safe ideas that the leader agrees with, and work cautiously." 

See also How Your Leadership Style Affects Those Around You.   

Improving human capital with your leadership skills 

Jim Collins writes: “… the single biggest constraint on the success of any organisation is the ability to get and to hang on to enough of the right people." 

Beware the "warm bodies syndrome" says Jim Collins in BE 2.0 (Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0).

Warm bodies syndrome turns up most often in a growth frenzy.

"I don't care who you get, I need people!"

Rapid growth pressures you to be less discerning in hiring; and hiring is one place you want to be extremely careful, he writes.

Whitney Johnson, author of Build an A Team, says every new hire is a highly important, long-term customer. 

What's a proven way to retain good staff?

  • 70% of survey respondents said quality leadership (The 2018 Australian HR Institute’s Turnover and Retention Report)

Dean robertson CEO leadership

(Image: Dean Robertson, award-winning CEO)

Award-winning CEO Dean Robertson in HOW THIS CEO’S TEAM GOT SO GOOD, DELOITTE CAME KNOCKING calls it "not skimping on the drinks package at the office party."

In an interview with The Growth Faculty, his answers to What qualities should a CEO have? were: 

  • Having a dogmatic vision about where the company is going and why. Everyone needs to be connected to a purpose.
  • Being immediately generous with your time and resources.  Never buy the “basic” drinks package for a team event, trust them with company credit cards. Your team will repay your generosity 100x with their effort, passion and willingness to help you back.
  • Delegate and trust.  You will get more mileage from a “retrospective” learning conversation for those 20% of failures. 
  • Hire for behavioural alignment with your whole team AND yourself.  Hire people that you actually enjoy working with and who enjoy your company too.  
  • Be honest and open with the team about mistakes that get made (yours as well) and focus on the lessons learned.
  • Be humble about your own skills, nobody likes a braggart, even if you’re the leader.
  • There are no second class citizens in a great culture. Remind everyone that every boat has a hull underwater providing buoyancy and stability, even if you can’t see it. Everyone on the team is important.
  • Listen first, and seek first to understand. When there’s a disagreement, don’t hash it out on email. Pick up the phone and have a conversation, but go in ‘palms up’ so you don’t start on an aggressive note. 
  • Seek advice and opinions from your team, but own your decision and be very clear that you expect the team to get on board with your decision. They will always get their opinions heard, but there can only be one leader.
  • Publicly thank and congratulate the team for good work at every opportunity. Nothing provides more satisfaction than being appreciated by your peers and leadership team.

whitney johnson disrupt yourself

(Image: Whitney Johnson, Disrupt Yourself, Build an A Team)

After reading Build an A Team by Whitney Johnson, I'd also add: 

  • Challenge your people to keep them.  
Whitney Johnson S Curve

(Image: The "S" curve of employee engagement - Whitney Johnson Build an A Team)  

Johnson cites the “S” curve of learning as being key to retaining employees.


The curve shows how staff motivation, performance and engagement can tail off once people get master the job.


  • Do you lose employees because you’re annoying, demotivating, or trying too hard?  

You can't talk about good leadership without addressing poor leadership traits.

Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers, told a leadership summit at The Growth Faculty, that “accidental diminishers” do more harm than good.  

Accidental diminishers infographic

Learning to lead: The Millennial Leader in 2021

At just 25, Julie Zhuo, now Vice President of Product Design at Facebook, was thrown in the deep end when promoted to a leadership position in the rapidly scaling tech start up. 

It was a shock. 

Julie Zhuo the making of a manager author

In an interview with The Growth Faculty, Julie says she didn’t know the first thing about what she’d gotten herself into. 

She wrote The Making of a Manager to help others - and there are plenty waiting in the wings to lead:  

  • Millennials and Generation Z — those born after 1981 — make up 64% of the world’s population (4.7 billion people).
  • In 2021 Gen-Z takes over Millennial as the biggest global generation.

Julie's useful tips for emerging leaders

  • Recognise management is to get great outcomes from a group of people. Julie says this helped when managing older colleagues she'd worked alongside. She saw herself as motivator and accountability warden.  Read 4 PROVEN ACTIONS TO LIFT TEAM PRODUCTIVITY
  • People, Process and Purpose are the three levers available to a manager. 
  • "People” is #1. 
  • There must be a foundation of trust, but be aware of the manager/report power dynamic.  
  • It’s up to the manager to make the report feel safe, empowered and motivated
  • Feedback doesn’t have to be negative. Constructive feedback can be helping someone understand what their strengths are. 
  • Ask yourself, Am I giving feedback with the right intention? Do I just want to be right? Do I want to look smart? Or do I genuinely want to help them improve? 
  • The most important quality of any meeting is that you are clear what outcome you want

The eldest millennial is 40 in 2021, so many are already learning on the job or being schooled for leadership positions.

Others will be cooling their heels, frustrated at the tight hold of the Boomers and Generation X. 

Either way, wannabe leaders of all ages should view learning to lead as a lifetime occupation. In 2021, active personal development is key. 

5 essential soft skills of leadership  

Soft skills are also referred to as employability skills - Deloitte

A recent Deloitte report forecasts by 2030, two thirds of jobs will be soft skill intensive, compared to half of all jobs in 2000.

One study of business educators named 5 essential soft skills for the 21st Century as:

  • team skills, communication skills, ethics, time-management skills, and an appreciation for diversity.
  • Deloitte's report adds problem solving, emotional judgement, and global citizenship.

Soft skills help to as uncertainty around the future requires creative and flexible teams who trust and get on with each other.  

A survey by The Growth Faculty of our member database on the “one characteristic every leader should possess” saw a number of soft skills top the list. 

  • 17% of respondents named empathy. It was the most popular answer. 
  • Humility was second - 15% of those surveyed. 
  • Self-awareness and ability to listen got 7% of votes. 

And these and other key soft skills appear in the latest leadership business books:

susan david emotional agility author

  • Emotional Intelligence (Emotional Agility by Susan David, pictured above) - Empathy, self-regulation, motivation and social skills are tied up in emotional intelligence (EQ).  
  • Vulnerability (Dare to Lead by Brené Brown) -  Being vulnerable is what helps humans plan, communicate and work together. See also: CAN TEAM MEMBERS BE TOO VULNERABLE WITH EACH OTHER? NO, SAY EXPERTS 
  • Listening & Communication (Radical Candor by former Google and Apple executive Kim Scott) - Actively listening and encouraging disagreement after you've said what you think. 
  • Growth Mindset (Growth IQ by Salesforce's Tiffani Bova) - You take risks, are more persistent, and more resilient in rebounding from failure.
  • Teamwork (The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle) - You send out "belonging cues." You send out a stream of signals that say "we’re connected, we share a future, I care."  

Soft skills attract others, and make people want to spend their work days with you.

Soft skills are essential if you're to have any hope of being a great and trusted leader.

Servant leadership and ethical leadership

If asking, "What’s the best leadership style?" these two may be a good starting point. 

Good leaders come in all shapes and sizes, but there are clear trends towards servant and ethical leadership in 2021.

Ethical/moral values–based leadership help with trust (and trust in major companies is down from 79.2% in 1981 to 36.3% in 2019, according to the Australian National University).

Servant leadership 

First coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf, the servant-leader is servant first. You want to serve, then aspire to lead. As Patrick Lencioni says in The Motive, wanting to lead first might suggest you seek status, power, or wealth.

According to a study in the International Journal of Leadership Studies, the servant leader commits to the values of:

a) humility,

b) concern for others,

c) controlled discipline,

d) seeking what is right and good for the organisation,

e) showing mercy in beliefs and actions with all people,

f) focusing on the purpose of the organisation and on the well-being of the followers,

g)creating and sustaining peace –not a lack of conflict but a place where peace grows. 

The Centre for Servant Leadership says 

  • A servant-leader focuses on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.
  • Servant leadership shares power, while traditional leadership is about power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” 
  • Servant leaders put the needs of others first, and help people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Ethical leadership

When you ask Weleda Managing Director (Australia) David Johnston about competitors he’ll deflect the conversation.

The ethical leader prefers discussing how humans can change the way they live to protect the planet.

Competitors? They’re a welcome addition to help bring forward sustainable packaging options.

2021 will see more leaders like David, focusing attention on sustainability, employee empowerment, emotional intelligence and the pursuit of meaningful work

Your Checklist for Ethical Leadership:

  • Build trust into your company’s culture
  • Lead by example
  • Be a leader who "eats last" (a servant leader)
  • Know your values and let them guide you through work, leadership and life
  • Be aware and mindful of biases and base decisions on facts
  • Loudly acknowledge and learn from your mistakes
  • Hire based on your values, and put people above profit 

For practical ways to demonstrate ethical leadership, here's the Practice of Ethical Leadership by Ann Skeet, Senior Director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics: 

  • Modeling: Character and Values - How you show up in the world. If you have integrity, that's the lens through which people will view your actions. 
  • Creating Community - You create community by using your organisation's mission and shared values as the cornerstone for decision making. 
  • Encouraging Ethical Conduct - You actively encourage ethical behaviour. You act ethically upon decisions that may require courage to do so. 
  • Being Disciplined in Their Role - You play your position relentlessly. Whether formal or informal, your leadership shows that you accept responsibility in situations.   
  • Clarifying Culture - You pause to clarify culture when things go wrong. You identify any gaps between stated and actual values, own the gaps and clear up confusion between policy and practice. 
  • Designing Ethical Systems - You design ethical systems to make decisions about compensation and other rewards, like promotions. You invest in individual and personal development.

Ethics-based leadership runs through all elements of a healthy business.

How your leadership style affects those around you

When a leader walks into the workplace, research proves one of two things will happen. 

  • Either, the mood and performance of the team and individuals will be boosted. 
  • Or, the mood and performance of the team and individuals will be lowered. 

To be a good leader, you need to understand that you bring the weather.

In other words, the mood and performance of your team will rise and fall depending on whether you are a boss who’s enthusiastic and positive, or sullen and negative.  

In a fascinating study on the subject, The Contagious Leader: Impact of the Leader's Mood (etc)., researchers found that just like a flu (they didn't yet know about COVID-19), the mood of the boss will spread to the team.  

flu under microscope and mood of boss will spread like flu

(Just like this flu, your mood spreads to your team. Image:Influenza A virus subtype H5N1- Wikipedia)

In an interview with The Growth Faculty, bestselling author of The Power of a Positive Team Jon Gordon recommends good leaders:  

  • Feed the positive. Weed the negative. Talk about this as a team and say, "It's not okay to be negative. It's not okay to be an energy vampire.” 
  • Keep them encouraged and believing that the best is yet to come, even though it may not look like it right now. Understand people don't give up because it's hard, but because they get discouraged.
  • Think of things that make you feel grateful, because you can’t be stressed and thankful at the same time. 
  • Tough love works, but only when love comes first. If your team knows that you love them and you care about them, then you earn the right to challenge them. 

Questions good leaders should be asking

Speaker and author Simon Sinek famously suggested good leaders “Start with Why?”  

Organisational health guru and bestselling author Patrick Lencioni (see his event in 2021) builds on the Why question with 6 critical questions for good leadership. 

Pat Lencioni and Karen Beattie at The Growth Faculty event on healthy cultures

(The Growth Faculty Managing Director Karen Beattie with Pat Lencioni at National Growth Summit. Image: The Growth Faculty)

Pat Lencioni says the chances of a healthy workplace drastically increase when leaders and employees agree on the answers to these 6 questions, spelled out in his book The Advantage.  

The 6 questions are:  

  1. Why do we exist?  
  2. How do we behave?  
  3. What do we do?  
  4. How will we succeed?  
  5. What is most important, right now?  
  6. Who must do what? 

In his keynote speech at The Growth Faculty’s National Growth Summit, Lencioni told the audience these questions might be the most important step of all in achieving a healthy workplace.  

As well he said employee engagement lifts when good leaders know their people, intimately.  

3 questions a good leader could ask themselves are: 

1. Does my employee feel they are known to me? 

2. Do they know why their job matters? 

3. Do they know if they’re doing a good job?  

Warren Berger, author of The Big Book of Beautiful Questions dives in with these suggestions for leaders:  

  • Am I willing to step back in order to help others move forward? Success as a leader depends on helping others achieve success.  
  • Do I have the confidence to be humble? Admit you don’t know all the answers. 
  • Can I learn to keep learning? Leaders must be restless learners. 
  • Do I seek to create an organisation in my own image? Too many leaders surround themselves with similar people, depriving the organisation of diverse thinking.  

Women in leadership

“There are 2 powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women.” - Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Laureate

Our interview on Women and Leadership (co-authored by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala) included:

3 aspects unique to women leadership:

1. Judgements are made on appearance. Expect it. 

2. No right way to be a woman leader. Consider if you want to plainly state your ambition and understand there may be consequences by doing so. 

3. Think about strategies to minimise the impact of being characterised as ‘She’s a bit of a bitch’ – once it takes hold it can be impossible to shift. 

Michelle Obama empty auditorium

(Image: Moments before the doors opened at The Growth Faculty sold-out event An Evening with Michelle Obama)

  • "Every day, you have the power to choose our better history — by opening your hearts and minds, by speaking up for what you know is right." - Michelle Obama

Women leaders are sought after as inspirational role models, yet there are fewer than 10 women CEOs in the Fortune 100 companies, for example.  

According to the Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency:

  • Women remain underrepresented at every stage of the career pipeline in Australia
  • There is poor representation at the top leadership levels (C-suite and CEO levels). In the 2018-19 WGEA dataset, only 17% of CEOs were women.
  • Research shows that most CEO appointments come from line roles such a Chief Operating Officer.
  • Roughly 30% of key management positions are held by women in Australia today. Many of them are in support roles such as Head of Human Resources.

Women leaders have shown an aptitude for both the hard skills (financial management, computer literacy, accounting, writing, mathematics) and the soft skills (empathy, teamwork, listening, self-awareness) in business management.  

So why are there so few women CEOs in the Fortune 100?

See also Glass ceiling alive and well - 6 left at the very top in 2019  

  •  It’s a pipeline issue, suggests Chief Executive’s CEO of the Year 2018 Marillyn Hewson, head of Lockheed Martin in an interview with journalist Dan Bigman.  

“I mean, it takes time to get the experience I’ve gained, to get to the role I’m in. We need to accelerate it,” she said.

  •   Better female role models in popular culture was also needed, said Hewson.  

“We have got to get even the entertainment industry involved in this. Because frankly, what are the signals that we’re giving to our young people in this country? I think it needs to be government; it needs to be industry, all sectors of industry; it needs to be non-profits, all working together on this very important problem.” 

  •  Time and balancing home and career. As well as entertainment industry role models, and time; balancing home and career was a factor in elevating strong female leaders, according to PepsiCo chair and former CEO Indra Nooyi.  

 “We get a lot of women in at the entry-level positions,” she told the Freakonomics radio show in 2018. “As you get to middle management, women rise to those positions, and then that’s the childbearing years.” 

“And when they have children, it’s difficult to balance having children, your career, your marriage, and be a high potential out-performer who’s going to grow in the company,” she added.  

“So it starts to thin out as you move up,” she explained. “We have to solve for that.” 

  •  Under-representation in STEM classes. As well, Indra Nooyi links studies in science, technology, maths and engineering with career building. And, in many countries, female students are still less likely than males to study STEM subjects at school and university. 

“...scientific disciplines play a very important role, and ground you very well as you move into positions of higher and higher authority, whatever the job is. It's very hard to learn science later on in life. One of the pleas I would have for most young people today is, stay with STEM as long as you can,” she told Freakonomics radio show.  

Nooyi was one of the world’s most effective CEOs during her time at PepsiCo, with sales during her leadership growing 80 percent, despite a decline in the soft drinks product category. 

Women are just as capable as men of being great leaders. So what's to be done? 

The Australian Government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency and other organisations say it's both awareness and action.

A 10-step recipe for getting more women into leadership: 

  • Build a strong case for change
  • Role-model a commitment to diversity, including with business partners
  • Redesign roles and work to enable flexible work and normalise uptake across levels and genders
  • Actively sponsor rising women
  • Set a clear diversity aspiration, backed up by accountability
  • Support talent through life transitions
  • Ensure the infrastructure is in place to support a more inclusive and flexible workplace
  • Challenge traditional views of merit in recruitment and evaluation
  • Invest in front line leader capabilities to drive cultural change
  • Develop rising women and ensure experience in key roles

See also: 21 Leadership Quotes from Inspiring Women 

30 Of the Best Books On Leadership And Business By Women 

Top 10 books on leadership

How to win friends and influence people by dale carnegie

(Image: Apple books)

Business coach John Spence reads 100-180 business books a year.

  • He says the average businessperson reads half a book a year.
  • John says if you were to read one book every other month (6 books a year) you'd be in the top 1% of the country you live in.
  • If you read one book a month, you'd be in the top 1% in the world for self-learning.

A good leadership book is chock-full of expert advice and has well-researched, practical tools to implement immediately. 

The extraordinary 1937 never-out-of-print book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is one I'd recommend. Warren Buffett lists it as having had a huge influence on his life and leadership. It's also one of the leadership books most strongly recommended by other leaders and leadership authors. 

If you haven't read it, and you should, here's a snippet: 

6 ways to make people like you (from How to Win Friends and Influence People)

  1. Become genuinely interested in other people;
  2. Reach common ground as soon as possible;
  3. Smile;
  4. Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  5. Be a good listener.
  6. Talk in terms of the other person's interests. Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.

But, assuming you've read that important and historic starter, here are 10 other business books that will help you on your quest to be a good leader: 

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't – Jim Collins 

The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity while Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work – Laura A. Iswood 

Start with Why - How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action – Simon Sinek 

The Advantage – Why Organisational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business - Patrick Lencioni 

Multipliers – How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter - Liz Wiseman with Greg McKeown 

3Hag Way The Strategic Execution System that ensures your strategy is not a Wild-Ass Guess -  Shannon Byrne Susko  

Dare to Lead Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts - Brené Brown 

Build an A Team Play up to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve - Whitney Johnson     

Scaling Leadership - Building Organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes that Matter Most - Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams

To read one golden nugget from many of these books, see 10 must-read business books your peers will probably have read 

And read a tip from each book in: 10 of the best books to kickstart 2021

Leadership quotes from the world's best

To finish our course on good leadership in 2021, we've pulled some of the best quotes from world leaders, women leaders, leading writers (such as these Adam Grant quotes), and emerging leaders.

Read these to become a more self-aware, inspiring and effective leader.

“Self-awareness and self-love matter. Who we are is how we lead.” – Dr Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

"...many leaders don't realise that they're scary, right? Even if they don't see themselves as scary, the position they hold, the role that they occupy, may have a silencing effect." - Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organisation

"You'll never be able to serve everyone, which is comforting, since you're less likely to be disappointed when it doesn't happen." - Seth Godin. For more see Best Seth Godin Quotes 

"Somebody gives me a complex problem I become a student. I don't care that I'm CEO, or president, or CFO. I become a student." - Indra Nooyi, former PepsiCo CEO. See Quotes to Inspire Leaders and CEOs from the Very Top 

“The true underlying obstacle to brave leadership is how we respond to our fear.” – Dr Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

"The most effective leaders score high in both confidence AND humility." - Adam Grant, Think Again.

"Job misery comes from irrelevance, immeasurement, and anonymity." - Patrick Lencioni, The Ideal Team Player

"You've got to be a role model of the culture you want to create." Jim Collins, BE 2.0 See Best Leadership Quotes from our 2021 event Jim Collins-Roadmap to Greatness

“Leaders of a company have to turn the rest of the company on.” - Jack Daly, author Winning Sales Strategies.

“The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.” — Seth Godin 

"When people feel that they are able to bring their emotional truth to the workplace with leaders who are compassionate and curious rather than leaders who want the answers, that is a first building block of emotional agility," - Susan David, Harvard Medical School professor and author of Emotional Agility

“We follow a leader because he is deep in something, and he knows what that something is.” - Marcus Buckingham, Nine Lies About Work 

“If you don’t have an evolving growth strategy, then you and your team are just driving around the block. You may be doing well, but you’re not going anywhere.”

Shannon Byrne Susko, 3Hag Way 

“Everyone gets knocked down in life. What matters is whether you get back up and keep going. (It’s a) lesson drilled in from an early age by my mother. It’s served me well and it’s universal."

Hillary Clinton

Do not let your age stop you from changing the world. I was 11 years old when I started speaking out ... I was not thinking for a second that just because I was young I could not change the world. - Malala Yousafzai 


Good leadership is difficult. And ongoing. And requires relentless effort. 

And if you can get them right, great leadership qualities will see that you snare more of the top people ("Superior talent is up to 8 times more productive" - McKinsey), enjoy work more, solve more problems, and win a bigger slice of the customer pie ("...effective senior leadership can add 15 percent to a company’s value" - Deloitte).    

In the face of rapid change like we're facing in 2021 (and faced in 2020), being a good leader makes a real impact.

As a reminder, here's research by Collingwood Search UK, which shows 10 "must-dos" to become a better leader:  

1.   Set the right example

2.   Continually develop your leadership skills 

3.   Be technically proficient 

4.   Make sound and timely decisions 

5.   Seek and take responsibility for your actions 

6.  Have a positive attitude 

7.   Keep your team informed 

8.   Get to know your team 

9.   Don't be afraid to delegate 

10.  Ensure that tasks are understood, supervised and completed 

"At the end of the day, people want to be led by those they respect, who have a clear vision and direction for the business." - Collingwood Search UK  

Remember, all leaders have strengths and weaknesses. It's not about being perfect, it's about playing up your strengths and working on your less desirable traits.

To finish, this quote from Seth Godin's book Tribes: 

“Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable. …It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle. When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.”

Good leadership is about being a better you. 

And, the better leader you are, the better your team will be too. 

Good luck in 2021!

If you'd like to increase your professional development in 2021 why not consider becoming a member of The Growth Faculty? One membership, unlimited access to 30 live virtual Time For Transformation masterclasses and the best live virtual events - PLUS year-round leadership content On Demand with videos, podcasts and book summaries. Join a community of knowledge seekers who are inspired by the best. Access $4350+ value for just $398 AUD. See who's up next.

This blog was originally written in 2020 and updated by the author in 2021.


McKinsey: 2017 article Attracting and Retaining the Right Talent 

Wall Street Journal, CIO Journal, Deloitte article: The Financial Impact of Executive Leadership (2011-12 study)

Lexico website ("powered by Oxford"), Definition of Leadership

University of Melbourne Graduate Course in Leadership handbook 

International Journal of Leadership Studies: An Integrative Definition of Leadership - Bruce E. Winston, Kathleen Patterson, Regent University

International Journal of Management, Business and Administration (Vol 14, No. 1,  2011) Leadership versus Management: A Key Distinction—At Least in Theory - Fred C. Lunenburg, Sam Houston State University

Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham. 

Marcus Buckingham interview with The Growth Faculty - On Demand (2019)

The 15 Disciplines; The Essential Checklist for Productive Leaders by Stephen Scott 

Scaling Leadership by Robert Anderson, founder of The Leadership Circle

Bob Anderson interview with The Growth Faculty - On Demand (2019)

Dare to Lead by Professor Brené Brown

Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell  by Alan Eagle, Eric Schmidt, and Jonathan Rosenberg

Forbes: 10 Unique Perspectives on What Makes a Great Leader 

Inc: 5 Essential Qualities of a Great Leader  

Fast Company: What You Think Makes a Good Leader Probably Doesn’t.  

Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don‘t

*Industrial Management article “Employee Turnover & Retention: Understanding the True Costs and Reducing them through Improved Selection Processes” by Matthew O’Connell, Ph.D. & Mei-Chuan Kung 

The Contagious Leader: Impact of the Leader's Mood on the Mood of Group Members, Group Affective Tone, and Group Processes,  Sy, Thomas & Côté, Stéphane & Saavedra, Richard. (2005).

Multipliers by Liz Wiseman

The Growth Faculty interview with Julie Zhuo, author of The Making of a Manager (2019)

Inc. Magazine article: "The Future of Work With Seth Godin. HR Leaders and Managers Will Not Like This" 

2019 Deloitte Access Economics report Soft skills for business success:Building Australia's future workforce

Essential Soft Skills for Success in the 21st Century Workforce as Perceived by Business Educators - Source: Delta Pi Epsilon Journal . Winter2010, Vol. 52 Issue 1, p43-53. 11p. 6 Charts.

Author(s): Mitchell, Geana W.; Skinner, Leane B.; White, Bonnie J.

The Growth Faculty member survey Leader to Leader (2019)

Emotional Agility by Susan David 

The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

Radical Candor by Kim Scott 

Growth IQ by Tiffani Bova 

The Power of a Positive Team by Jon Gordon, and 2018 interview by The Growth Faculty with Jon Gordon 

Australian National University Don't blame voters for a lack of trust in institutions. ANU Chancellor Professor the Hon Gareth Evans sets the scene for the 2019 ANU Crawford Leadership Forum

The Business Council of Australia, McKinsey & Company and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency study: Women in Leadership: Lessons from Australian companies leading the way 10 Key Factors Of Being A Good Leader