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Examining the Characteristics of an Effective Leader

Recently, Natasha Wallace, the founder and CEO of The Conscious Leadership Company, sat down with David Wilkinson of The Oxford Review to discuss what makes a CEO and their common character traits.


You can watch the discussion here, which focuses on a recent research study that listed 75 characteristics of an effective CEO or senior leader. The 2022 study, published in the Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance, examined previous research into leadership characteristics to collate overall findings across multiple research studies. 


Defining the characteristics of successful leaders has often been called the holy grail of leadership research. The study aimed to assess what the vast amounts of research determined as a whole. If you’re interested in reading the Abstract for the research study, you can do so here.


It’s a fascinating discussion, with David’s experience of both agile and lumbering bureaucracies powered by Natasha’s experiences in similar worlds.


About the study


The study revealed 75 characteristics of an effective CEO or leader, listing them in order of frequency. In ranking order, you can find the complete list of those competencies at the bottom of this page. But that’s a lot of competencies and characteristics. While it might be a seemingly overwhelming number, the fact is that the list of terms acts as a good compass. 


So following on from the discussion between Natasha and David, we’ll take a deeper look at some of the key discussion points and reflect on the real-world impact and challenges of these leadership characteristics.


Agreeable vs decision-making


The first topic of discussion was the inclusion of agreeableness on the list. That’s because being agreeable sounds counterintuitive for leaders. If you're trying to run a team, a department, or a division, leadership and decision-making go hand in hand, so it’s a surprise to find agreeable so high up on the list. 


The key to understanding this characteristic is that we’re talking about agreeableness, a psychological dimension. It's about building positive relationships as opposed to cutting across relationships. It doesn't mean agreeing with everything. It means you’re an agreeable type of person that people want to have a relationship with. Consider the opposite, where team members must take a deep breath before they walk into your office with the mindset of “I've got to go talk to this dragon”.


Being agreeable doesn't mean that leaders are going to agree with you all of the time. Agreeableness is the ability to say no, without compromising the psychological safety of your team. So you can have a high level of agreeableness and still be assertive.


Related reading: 5 Organisational Benefits of Leadership Development


Understanding considerate leaders


There are many, many leaders out there who don't lead with consideration. They lead with execution. Having a considered approach to your responsibilities as a leader means you've thought about your tasks and goals, planned how to delegate them, and understood how your decisions impact the team and the individuals on that team.


You’re considerate of your needs and the needs of others, making it easier to identify when you or others are at risk of being overburdened and burning out.


With the kind of tensions that organisations face, leaders are trying to do lots of things on an ongoing basis. There are new products and lots of changes (especially in recent years), and organisations only have so many resources, money, and people. The people on your team have only got so much time, and there will come a point when people can break. If you're expecting them to work longer hours a day, you have to consider their needs.


Consideration is fairly high on the list, but it should be higher. We already know that when people experience burnout they're not going to perform well, so being considerate of your and their needs is a vital leadership characteristic.


Related reading: How Conscious Leadership Helps to Prevent Burnout


Integrity in the leadership context


Integrity is at the very top of the list, and it’s interesting to understand what integrity looks like in the leadership context. Integrity as a leadership characteristic was the single most frequently cited across the whole of the research study. And underpinning integrity is the need to be both coherent and consistent.


By working with consistent and coherent integrity, leaders convey confidence. You know they've got a clearly defined roadmap of what they're doing, and understand that they're trying to make everything as effective as possible. They don't come in one day and do something completely different and then the next day do something else.


The result is that you get the sense that what they're doing is considered. That’s what integrity as a characteristic looks like in the context of leadership.


But with integrity, there's also this sense of ethical behaviour, meaning that you can have an honest discussion with them. Being ethical is also one of the leadership characteristics listed in the research study. When leaders have integrity powered by ethics, they are more approachable. That includes when those leaders have made a mistake. Positive, effective, and Conscious Leaders can say:


“Hang on a minute, we need to revisit this. The last decision I made probably wasn't the best. Let's have a look at this again because I think there's a better way of moving forward.”


That's leadership integrity. Rather than moving ahead because you don't want people to think that you've made a mistake, responsible, Conscious Leaders with integrity aren’t afraid to take a step back, reexamine what’s happening, and make changes based on new insights.


Related reading: In a Leadership Position? You're Not Superhuman, So Stop Trying to Be


Integrity vs passion


We’ve all had encounters with leaders who can get very emotional. They can get very angry, excited, or passionate about an idea. The problem is that while passion is a core leadership characteristic listed in the study, passion can also be an issue. Passionate, emotional leaders can overreact and respond negatively to situations - they can call you out in front of people in a meeting, or they can rant angrily down the phone at you. 


In combating that, how do you align ethical integrity with being passionate?


It all comes down to emotional regulation and understanding positive and negative passion. If it goes over the top in either direction, it could be more balanced and there's not a lot of emotion regulation going on. So leaders need to learn the ability to create balance in their emotions, which becomes extremely important. 


The answer comes down to affective balance and what that means. The affective part of us is about our emotions, emotional responses to things, and moods. But the underpinning values and beliefs also create those conditions for a particular emotional response.


Related reading: Intro to Resilience — Consciously Lessons


The importance of emotional regulation


Effective leaders need the ability to regulate their own emotions, to regulate (and down-regulate) emotions so that there's a balance. That way, leaders avoid getting caught in a negative spiral. There’s been an increase in research on this idea of affective balance, showing that it's a core leadership trait. It's that ability where even though you’re in a bad mood because something happened at home this morning, that will not impact your work or your ability to communicate positively with your team. 


Leaders with emotional regulation can still come in and be positive and able to do things. Sometimes, things go wrong, and good leaders know they can display that emotion. They can give an, “Oh, for crying out loud,” but then turn it around, move on, and do something positive.


These are core leadership traits because of emotion regulation, which is critical to us as human beings. Leaders need to do this because leaders and managers tend to set the emotional tenure of a team or the organisation.


So if you've got leaders who are getting angry or flustered, who are overreacting to things, who are shouting, “everything's a disaster,” that behaviour becomes contagious. Emotional contagion within organisations is particularly harmful if there's a crisis happening. Fear is one of the most contagious emotions. It spreads rapidly across groups of people, and we have this socialised ability to sense trouble.


Related reading: How Connection and Wellbeing Drives Performance


The consequences of organisational fear


This emotional contagion occurring within organisations, particularly around organisational change and fear, can get out of control. Leaders are vital for preventing negative emotion contagion within an organisation.


If there's a lot of fear in the system, how that comes out is in people protecting themselves — being defensive, or intransigent to change. We must avoid allowing too much fear into our organisations because it will derail performance.


And it can be fear of consequences, or an internal sense of anxiety which is why the inner game is so important. Leaders powered by integrity and emotional balance understand themselves, understand the desires and needs of themselves and their team, and know how to drive behaviour and thinking.


And when we examine our motivations, we find that many of them are based on fear, as we don't want something bad to happen. While fear can be a good motivator, leaders need to be aware of what those fears are, whether they're motivating in a good way or whether they're causing us problems and causing other people's problems.


Consider the leaders who micromanage. The reason for micromanagement is almost always fear. Micromanagers are worried that a team manager isn't going to do their best or lacks the capabilities to carry out their role effectively or accurately.


What’s particularly interesting is that while fear is obviously not a valuable leadership characteristic, it does underpin many of the core characteristics listed in the study. Many of those characteristics listed are about being able to stay calm and in control despite the fear that’s around you.


Related reading: Why Conscious Leadership and Not Something Else?


Optimism and decisiveness


Number three and four on the research study’s list of core characteristics of leaders are optimism and decisiveness. Both are very positive characteristics, which have been examined in detail across multiple studies regarding their importance in leadership. It’s all about the energy you bring to the workplace, but it’s not without paradox.


For example, how does decisiveness align with another identified characteristic: flexibility?


The key is recognising when you can be decisive but also having a keen awareness of when you lack the information or the skills to make those decisions. And once you recognise that, the flexibility comes in — you can restructure the decision-making process to include the right people and work on becoming decisive as a team rather than as an individual.


This is where many organisations fail. Within weaker business models, decisions are made at the board level only, so there’s no input from the people that will be directly affected by those decisions. The result is that policy changes or new brand guidelines become paper-pushing exercises with little or no impact.


More effective and proactive organisations use the expertise and experience of those within. The result is that they can become decisive as a team rather than as individuals. When you re-approach decision-making, you start seeing organisational change at a more rapid pace and with a higher, more positive impact. 


Related reading: Conscious Leadership Skills Needed in the Modern Workplace


Breaking down the decision-making process


A key factor here is understanding that three different types of decisions need to be made within businesses of all sizes. The difference between these decisions is often overlooked, so all decisions are treated equally.


Critical decisions


These are the decisions that, if the wrong choices are made, will have a huge financial or reputational impact on the organisation. The golden rule here is that no one person should be responsible for critical decision-making. It should involve people from all relevant departments, including at the board level. Critical decisions have large ramifications and tend to be either operational or strategic.


A real-world example of this going wrong is Lehman Brothers, which allowed Dick Fuld to make financial decisions without input from any other source. The key to breaking down decision-making is to ensure no one, even the CEO, can make critical decisions independently.


Expensive decisions


More likely to be operational decisions, expensive decisions are those that will cost the company a substantial amount of money if they go wrong. It will not be a big enough loss to cause serious damage to the business, but there will be a financial impact. With expensive decisions, this, too, needs to be approached from a multi-department perspective.

It may not involve board members, but managers will need to participate in these kinds of decisions. 


Creative decisions


If it’s neither critical nor expensive, the guidance from both Natasha and David is to let people make those choices without input. When people start to learn what's costly and critical, they begin to understand what they can play with, and the result is a creative orientation within the organisation. Where there's more creativity, people can take risks. When things go wrong, you can create a new policy to make sure that this specific area of the decision-making process is changed.


If it does not cost anything and it's not going to kill the company, allowing team members to make creative decisions will always be beneficial. Even when they get it wrong, they're going to learn. And that’s just good news for any size of business.


As the internal conversation starts to learn whether something is an expensive or a critical decision, people start to learn what falls in that bracket and it's often obvious. Allowing for different approaches to the various decision-making levels eliminates risk aversion within organisations because they're not just treating all decisions as the same thing.


Related reading: Using Togetherness to Create an Inclusive, Healthy Workplace


Optimism, in the face of challenge


One of the study’s most highly ranked leadership characteristics is optimism, so it’s worth exploring this leadership characteristic in a little more depth. After all, it’s fairly obvious that this can be a challenging characteristic to maintain when times are challenging or when things are going wrong.


It’s a mindset issue, and the solution comes down to self-efficacy.


In psychology, self-efficacy is a belief in your capacity to act in the necessary ways to reach your specific goals. When you lack the ability, knowledge, or skill sets needed to solve a problem, you can remain optimistic about your ability to find the right solution. This could involve learning something new, or introducing other people into the process. 


It’s easy to be disheartened when we recognise our inability to reach a goal, and it’s very easy to give up. For leaders, giving up can often be seen as passing the buck. They know they can’t reach a goal, so they make it someone else's responsibility. They say, “I can’t do this,” instead of “I’m going to get good at this.” 


With positive, Conscious Leadership, those leaders know that even if they’re not sure how they will make things happen, they have the confidence to know that they can.


Sitting alongside optimism are other critical characteristics: calm and confidence. Being a leader is all about being learning-oriented, learning from data and feedback, and being agile enough to make changes at both a project and an organisational level. Optimism through the confidence to act on real-world information.


Related reading: 7 Ways to Develop Your Leadership Skills in a New Role


Integrity at the core


Breaking down the clustered concepts in this study, you can start to look at where leadership breaks down. It’s possible to look at famous cases where a lack of leadership skills, particularly integrity, has ruined entire organisations.


When you examine cases such as Enron and other organisations that went bust, there was very little integrity or openness. They were hiding things. And the moment you're hiding things should be a warning message to leaders. That warning message is largely internal, with good leaders questioning their integrity and being able to ask themselves:


What is going wrong?

Why am I hiding this information or feeling?


It’s clear that integrity powers and empowers the best leaders. As a leadership characteristic, it should be something you take time to develop and hone.


The research study identifies that, rather than trying to be right all the time, effective leaders are always learning and ready to adapt to change in the face of new input. The 75 characteristics are a clearly defined leadership development roadmap and checklist. They offer a clear guide to authentic self-development.


If you’re interested in finding out more about how to develop your leadership skills, our Conscious Leader Psychometric will give you and your leadership team insights into burnout, wellbeing, performance, engagement, and productivity.


Alternatively, try Consciously, our leadership app that’s like having a leadership coach in your pocket. Try our digital learning and wellbeing platform that combines innovative technology and progressive curated content.


Below are all the 75 leadership characteristics listed in the study, along with the ranking of the frequency of their appearance across multiple leadership research studies.

1. Integrity
2. Openness
3. Optimism
3. Decisiveness
4. Inspiring
4. Visionary
5. Creativity
5. Empathy
5. Fair
5. Flexibility
5. Honest
5. Intelligence
6. Adaptability
6. Authentic
6. Committed
6. Confident
6. Courageous
6. Curious
6. Extraversion
6. Learning
6. Listening
6. Reflective
7. Accountable
7. Agreeableness
7. Ambition

7. Analytical

7. Balanced
7. Conscientious
7. Considerate
7. Cooperative
7. Effective decision making
7. Engaging
7. Enthusiasm
7. Excellence oriented
7. Focused
7. Inspired
7. Modest
7. Motivational
7. Passionate
7. Persuasive
7. Resiliency
7. Respectful
7. Results oriented
7. Risk-taking
7. Self-aware
7. Team builder
7. Team player
7. Trustworthy
8. Assertiveness
8. Calm

8. Charismatic
8. Communicative

8. Consistent
8. Dependable

8. Effective in leading change
8. Energetic
8. Ethical
8. Fast
8. High standards
8. Humility
8. Inclusiveness
8. Informed
8. Insightful
8. Intuitive
8. Leadership skills
8. Low neuroticism
8. Magnanimous
8. Motivated
8. Overachieve targets
8. Persistence
8. Pragmatic
8. Proactive
8. Socially responsible
8. Stable
8. Transparent.