What it takes to be a great leader in the 21st century

Authenticity, positivity and emotional intelligence critical characteristics for success

Traditionally we see a leader as a figurehead, the boss-man, or woman, the commander and chief. We all know the predictable mantra of what it takes to be a great leader: “They have charisma, vision.” But is that really enough?

Simply put: no. While those attributes are valid, they’re no longer sufficient. To be successful and remain effective in today’s dynamic global business environment, leaders need to adapt more quickly to their new roles.

There is a plethora of people offering advice on the subject.

For author Simon Sinek inspiration is the key, whether it is seeking co-operation, trust or change. Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg, focusing particularly on aspiring women leaders, urges them to trust themselves, not to lower their ambitions on the basis that they might have family down the line and, less obviously, demand a better working balance in the home.


Roselinde Torres, the Boston Consulting managing director who has spent 25 years looking at and working with leaders, also has three, albeit different, pieces of advice that can be distilled as: actively anticipate change; seek out people who think differently to you; and be courageous enough to abandon the secret to past success, if necessary. Behavioural economist Dan Ariely stresses the feel-good factor that strong leaders realise is the secret to persuading people to deliver.

So how to become a great leader? Taking these insights, and more, here are my top 10 attributes of a successful leader in the 21st century.

1: Self-awareness. Yes, the soft stuff matters. Self-awareness is being conscious of what you're good at while acknowledging what you still have yet to learn. This includes admitting when you don't have the answer and owning up to mistakes. Organisations benefit more from leaders who take responsibility for what they don't know than from leaders who pretend to know it all.

2: Passion. Never be satisfied, always want to push to do something bigger, better and greater. Innovation is essential not only for success but for survival. Be ready and willing to embrace change to make a difference, to take your business and your own abilities to the next level and take your teams with you.

3: Critical and strategic thinking. Inquisitive is good. Looking to find the what and the why behind a proposition and the ability to adopt difference perspectives is, as former Harvard Business School management specialist David Garvin has argued, a key trait of the successful modern leader.

4: Courage and confidence. Harvey Norman boss Blaine Callard believes "most breakthrough ideas were folly . . . until they worked . . . then they were genius". In an increasingly uncertain world, strong leaders need to make bold decisions which can sometimes be unpopular or even counterintuitive.

5: Authenticity. In the largest leadership development study ever undertaken, Harvard professor and former Medtronic chief executive Bill George concluded that you might drive short-term outcomes without being authentic, but authentic leadership is the only way to create long-term results.

6: Positivity. Good leadership requires discipline, foresight and organisation. Great leadership, on the other hand, comes with an added dose of strong positivity. Because, while regimented strength is admirable, it does not inspire or influence a team the way that the force of positivity can. Being positive is not just something you do to be nice: it leads to measurable improvements in performance.

7: Emotional intelligence (EI). The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of EI. In practical terms, this means being aware that emotions can drive our behaviour and impact people (positively and negatively), and learning how to manage those emotions – both our own and those of others – especially when we are under pressure.

8: Daring to be different. Don't just talk about risk-taking, take risks. Break the rules, stand out.

9: Proactive, not reactive. Great leaders prepare themselves not for the comfortable predictability of yesterday but for the realities of today and the unknown possibilities of tomorrow.

10: Clear and succinct communications skills. Communication is vital for leaders, whether it is one to one or to larger groups. Knowing how to approach different media – phone, email and social media – is not simply an optional extra. Most importantly, remember that a large part of communication involves listening, particularly developing your active listening skills.

Ann Masterson is a senior lecturer and programme director in leadership development at Dublin Business School