Back To All Stories
pat in crowd

Leader to Leader: Most Essential Leadership Qualities

Our new Leader to Leader segment surveys our community of Australian business leaders on the most pressing issues facing them today. We recently asked, What is one characteristic every leader should possess?

Our new Leader to Leader segment surveys our community of Australian business leaders to share the collective intelligence on the most pressing issues facing leaders today. As part of this series, we recently reached out to our community of business leaders and asked them:

What is one characteristic every leader should possess?

The results came from leaders of all backgrounds, experience levels and from a wide variety of industries, and ranged from single word responses to detailed anecdotes, key lessons and cautionary tales.

The Results

  • 17% of respondents stated that empathy is the one characteristic every leader should possess, making it the top answer across all platforms.

  • Humility came in at a close second, a requirement for just over 15% of those surveyed.

  • Self-awareness and an ability to listen were each listed by 7% of those who responded.

A member of our community, Frances Quinn, explained why being open to the perspectives of others is a key leadership quality:

Every leader should have a deep fascination in the perspectives of others. Without this, they will fail to understand their team, build relationships and provide effective leadership.

Don’t Force it...

Humility, a key characteristic for 15% of respondents, is a key component of strong and effective leadership according to many experts, while coercive measures and hubris have the opposite effect. Turning the Flywheel author Jim Collins has spent his career thinking and writing about what makes the best companies tick, and has warned that leadership can’t be held by force:

The best and most innovative work comes only from true commitments freely made between people in a spirit of partnership, not from bosses telling people what to do. Leadership cannot be assigned or bestowed by power or structure; you are a leader if and only if people follow your leadership when they have the freedom not to.

Results Continued

Other popular responses included integrity, curiosity and vulnerability, accounting for almost 20% of the results.

Brené Brown, TEDx speaker, author and star of a recent Netflix special, The Call to Courage, has espoused the benefits of brave leadership and examined the power of vulnerability throughout her research and writing. For Brown, vulnerability can be summarised in three words:

  • Uncertainty

  • Risk

  • Emotional exposure

An appetite for leaders exhibiting vulnerability and self-awareness suggests that the best leaders have an ability to look inward and self-assess, prior to offering their critique of others.

Be Kind

An emphasis on emotional intelligence was common among the responses, which included self-improvement, passion, authenticity and kindness.

This focus on kindness was articulated by one of our community members, TEDx speaker and author Claire Ashman:

For me kindness should lead first, then everything else follows, like resilience, curiosity etc. I find people lack a lot of kindness. A leader who leads with kindness is automatically empathetic, understanding and curious...A kind leader is more likely to make a lasting impact on their followers and ultimately, the world.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Other business leaders noted humour as a key characteristic of a good leader, echoing Liz Wiseman’s assertion that ‘a great sense of humour’ is a common trait of what she calls a Multiplier, a leader able to inspire and bring out the best in others. Trust was another repeated answer, unsurprising perhaps to author Marcus Buckingham who knows what a team without it looks like:

Upon examining the most engaged teams, we were able to determine that the biggest driver of engagement was whether or not teams trusted their team leader. Members of teams that have extreme trust for their team leader are 12 times more likely to be fully engaged. Across countries, industries, and positions, a trusted team leader is the foundation for building highly engaged teams.

Lessons Learned

We asked our community of business leaders to share with us the characteristic that every leader should possess, but what can be learned from the results?

The primary takeaway must surely be that all leaders and teams are different, and therefore require a nuanced and considered leadership style. But while the adage, different strokes for different folks may apply, the modern leader must embody a set of key qualities regardless of industry, location, team dynamics and the size of the business.

Empathy, humility, the ability to look inward, vulnerability and self-awareness are all markers of leader committed to self-improvement and feedback, unafraid to harness their team members’ strengths, ideas, skills and expertise. The number one tool for this process? An ability to communicate, both by expressing oneself and by listening to others. The final word goes to Sir Richard Branson, business magnate, author, philanthropist but above all, leader:

Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess.


Thank you to everyone who sent in their responses to the question, What characteristic do you think every leader should possess?

Looking for something more? Hear former CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi share her leadership experiences in an intimate first-class dinner. Tickets available here.

Our On Demand library holds a collection of videos from the world’s foremost leadership experts. View the full collection here.