The secret of good leadership

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6 min read

Whether in a small team or as head of a company - great leadership inspires, motivates and gives employees, partners, and other stakeholders purpose for a common goal.

"Leadership is the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants", Harvard Business Review quotes W.C.H. Prentice in its article "Understanding Leadership.


  1. Leadership is about goals & means
  2. Important traits according to McKinsey
  3. Important traits according to science
  4. What are good leadership styles? 
  5. Summary: The right traits & styles for the right context

Leadership is about goals & means

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Now, this definition conveys perfectly what leadership achieves but in its overly theoretical approach, it lacks the information how it achieves it. In fact, plenty of bad leaders still achieve their goals but at the cost of employee motivation and health. With the progression of concepts such as New Work, company culture and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), we've developed our understanding of not only successful but also healthy leadership and employee management. Nowadays, it's not just about the goals but also about the means.

So, what does a good leader do to not just achieve a goal but to actively motivate people to see the goal as their own?

Important  Leadership traits according to McKinsey

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The answer is difficult since there is not one right answer to it. Since different companies and organizations have different goals and different cultures, successful leadership traits might vary. However, according to a survey of 189,000 people in 81 diverse organizations around the world, McKinsey identified four leadership traits that correlate more often with success.

Being supportive

The social aspect of leadership is crucial and incredibly challenging. Leaders need to have a "sincere interest in those around them" to build trust, to inspire and to help colleagues to overcome problems. Support can range from backing a team's decision to helping individual team members to solve challenging hurdles. A good leader will support their team whether challenges come from external or internal sources.

Operating solution-oriented

As important as planing and communication is, the results count at the end of the day. McKinsey found that leaders who follow through to achieve results are more likely to focus on efficiency and productivity.

Allocating the right resources and being able to prioritize can help a team (or organization) to focus on the most important tasks, reduce workloads and create transparency.

Seeking different perspectives

Diversity is a big topic of modern work environments because it has been proven over and over again, that different points of view can create better solutions. Leaders who are open to ideas, who listen and are interested in trends and news outside of their own experience are usually more prone to base decisions on facts and analysis.

Solving problems efficiently

Being able to collect information, analyze and come up with solutions is key for successful leadership. McKinsey mentions here not only business problems but also interpersonal ones such as team conflicts. It seems logical that a leader who is able to develop and come up with solutions with their team is more likely to motivate members to do so as well.

Important leadership traits according to science

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In his article about the scientific findings on leadership, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes up a very thorough review of studies on the subject from the last decades. Interesting enough, there is a scientific argument that concise traits can't be defined since it is almost impossible to account for different contexts, team setups and environments.

Despite this argument, though, there's still plenty of studies and arguments that prove that certain personality types, character traits and soft skills are found more often in leaders than not:

  • adjusted
  • sociable
  • ambitious
  • curious

This doesn't mean that people without these traits cannot be successful leaders but that people with these traits can be found more often in successful leadership positions.

Performance effectiveness is another of the main measures of a successful leader which is in line with McKinsey's trait of "problem solving". However, Chamorro-Premuzic adds that a high level of integrity to the problem solving is often important to develop a fair team dynamic. Emotional intelligence, i.e. the ability to manage their own emotions as well as others in a supporting and calm manner, is usually coupled with integrity. People who care about people are less likely to make unethical decisions or act in a way that harms their team (and others).

What are good leadership styles?

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Different situations, environments and goals demand different leadership styles. In his research article on the impact of leadership styles on organizational performance (PDF), Ebrahim Hasan Al Khajeh from Lincoln University College lists the six most common leadership styles.

It is of not, that hardly any leader only represents one leadership style and that most commonly, leaders combine different styles in different amounts.


Focuses on community growth and considers the need of each team member. Transformational leaders focus on developing a value system, skills, and motivation levels.


Focuses on a vision that motivates team members. Charismatic leaders are often innovative, creative and social and are the main motivator within the team.


Focuses on transactions (e.g. good performance = good pay). These transactions can include payment, promotions, reviews, new responsibilities, bonuses, benefits, etc. Transactional leaders define targets that their team members than have to fulfil to get specific rewards.


Focuses on decentralized decision-making by the whole group. Democratic leaders value their team members' opinions and will involve them in their decisions.


Focuses on a single decision-maker who gives out tasks in a very standardized way. Autocratic leaders act as enforcers of their rules, ideas and tasks.


Focuses on policies and procedures designed by leadership. Bureaucratic leaders act according to defined processes and want their team also to act within these rules.

Comparing studies and research to gain insight into what leadership types are usually most common in organizational success, Ebrahim Hasan Al Khajeh comes to the conclusion that democratic, transformational, and - surprisingly - autocratic* leadership styles are most common when it comes to overall positive organizational performance.

Charismatic and bureaucratic leadership were found to have a positive effect in short-term projects but are less successful in the long term.

*Talking about effective autocratic leadership, this style works well in organizations that themselves have clear hierarchies and transparent, clearly defined rules within the "autocrat" can act. Despite it's more negative connotation, autocratic leadership - if done effectively - can provide a strong leadership, clear goals and processes and fast decisions.

The success of the autocratic style is pretty much dependent on the leader which relates back to the leadership traits and how they affect overall performance.

Summary: The right traits & styles for the right context

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Although a red thread throughout this article was the notion that there is no clearly defined style or trait that is synonymous with success, research and experience has shown that certain leadership types and characteristics are predominantly found in successful examples.

Moreover, it is the right combination of style and traits that makes a good team leader in the end. Communication skills, emotional intelligence, solution-oriented behavior, creativity and integrity are not only very common but also seen as positive in a leader by employees, partners, and customers.

Leadership styles therefore do rely on the leaders that incorporate them as well as the culture and style of the entire organization. An autocratic leader in a democratic organization is a lot less likely to succeed than an autocratic leader in an organization that is based on clear hierarchies.

In short: the right leadership will always be tied to the environment, culture, and individuals. 

Learn more about what makes a good leader, how to navigate the digital transformation and which trends to look out for. Subscribe to our DIGITALL Galaxy Blog and receive the newest articles via email.

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by Juliane Waack

Juliane Waack is Editor in Chief at DIGITALL and writes about the digital transformation, megatrends and why a healthy culture is essential for a successful business.

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