What really makes a good leader?

Written by
John Williams
ILM, a City & Guilds Group business

26 Oct 2017

26 Oct 2017 • by John Williams


ILM's recent research found behavioural skills were the most valued among UK employees. So how can you develop these among the next generation of leaders?

This article is provided to Changeboard by our Future Talent 2018 partners, City & Guilds group. You can see City & Guilds' managing director, Kirstie Donnelly, at Changeboard's Future Talent Conference 2018, where she will lead a panel discussion exploring key transitions in people's career journeys.

In recent months – years even – examples of both good and bad leadership styles have dominated the news agenda. The question of what it is that really makes a good leader is the subject of constant debate, with everyone from political party leaders to start-up CEOs and Hollywood power players implicated. 

But so often the actual substance of what enables individuals to be a positive influence, and to achieve things through those around them, is overlooked, and we invariably fall short of reaching an overarching definition of what an individual needs to be an effective leader. The upshot is that the concept of leadership – and its successful application – remains elusive. 

Leadership isn’t just a word or a single quality. Being a leader involves a huge number of different skills and attributes, each of which develop in different ways.

To find the unique, tangible qualities that make up the leaders who are most able to engender organisational success, we decided to take a deep dive into skills, behaviours and learning, and ultimately gain a more useful understanding of what we really mean by ‘leadership’. 

We commissioned research into over 2,000 UK employees in full and part-time work, looking in detail at what skills people value in the workplace, and how they tend to acquire those skills. With this three dimensional view, we are better able to communicate the core capabilities that leaders need, and the best way to get them.

Behavioural skills are the most valuable

Our findings showed that the skills workers found most valuable in their colleagues were behavioural, with communication and feedback identified as not only the strongest skill among today’s professionals (with 74% stating it’s a skill they possess) but also the attribute they value more than any other in their colleagues, along with responsibility, accountability and integrity (considered a key strength by 72% of people).

Equally, the qualities people found most harmful in colleagues were behavioural rather than technical; such as arrogance or rudeness (rated as the worst attributes by 55% of people) and disorganisation (35%). 

This shows us that it is softer skills that have the most significant impact not only on workplace satisfaction, but on the ability of an organisation to succeed. 

How are workers developing skills?

Having discovered the capabilities workers most highly regard, we wanted to understand the preferred way of obtaining them; is it through learning on the job, formal training, or simply interacting with others. 

In doing so, we found that contagious leadership is rife in the UK workplace, with 74% of UK employees have actively copied skills from their co-workers. Again, the most infectious skills were found to be behavioural – and critical to get right – including communication, copied by a fifth (18%) of workers and problem solving (9%). 

While this type of learning could be immensely positive, with people picking up good practice in a real-life working environment, it can also present a real issue.

UK professionals are not influenced by traditional hierarchies or qualifications when it comes to choosing who they emulate – indiscriminately absorbing skills from everyone they are surrounded by – and are most likely to mimic what they’ve seen in others when they face risky or stressful situations. 

This could leave employees exposed to emulating the wrong behaviours – just when it’s most important to get it right. 

Encouraging positive leadership behaviours

It’s apparent that, regardless of their sector, experience, or organisational level, employees at every level possess and are surrounded by colleagues with the excellent softer skills that will enable them to lead others.

With contagion the most often used method for learning, any skill whatsoever may proliferate across an organisation – for better or worse.
In order to increase the likelihood that positive leadership behaviours will thrive, businesses should invest in upskilling their people so that they breed an awareness of what will most effectively enable them to work with and through others.

This need is reflected in the learning preferences of UK professionals, the majority of whom claim they find formal training and development most helpful for acquiring new skills and capabilities. 

By rolling out formal training and reinforcement of positive leadership skills at every level of an organisation, you can feel confident that your employees will be embodying and transferring to others the skills they really need for success.


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ILM, a City & Guilds Group business