There is much debate on whether leaders are born or made, but no matter the answer, effective leaders have a number of traits in common. So what are the traits that make a great leader?

Emotional intelligence

We all know the common phrase ‘people leave managers, not companies’. So what is it that makes a great leader? The difference between an acceptable leader and an exceptional leader often lies with emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.

So what is it about emotional intelligence that is so critical in effective leadership?

Self-awareness – Strong leaders can recognise their own emotions and the impact of these on others. They are able to regulate their emotions as appropriate to the situation and do not let their emotions drive their reactions when facing challenge or adversity.

Motivation – Effective leaders are self-motivated, committed to producing quality work, and drive consistently towards their own goals, their team’s goals, and the goals of the company.

Empathy – Empathy is a critical trait for leaders, as they must be able to understand what motivates or upsets others in order to successfully lead them. An empathetic leader will be seen as compassionate and understanding by others.

Sociability – Leaders who are adept in social skills have the capacity to manage the emotions of others, which is important when navigating change or conflict. They are good networkers and can build those strong relationships that are critical in leadership.

Academic research has demonstrated that high emotional intelligence is more prevalent in senior leaders with a long tenure, specifically these leaders had higher overall emotional intelligence, well-being, self-control and sociability (Siegling, Nielsen & Petrides, 2014).


In order to successfully drive a business forward, a leader needs to understand how to work effectively with others, particularly their fellow leadership team members. The first step towards great teamwork is two-fold: understanding themselves and understanding each other.

Leaders who have an insight into how they and their team members behave, communicate, their strengths and limitations and their motivators, have the tools to successfully work with their team. They are aware of how to modify their behaviour to get the best out of those around them and can tap into a person’s motivators and drivers.

Strong leaders often practice a participative leadership style and involve their team in setting strategy and objectives. They empower those around them in taking ownership of company goals and how to get there. This social exchange in the workplace fosters trust, creativity and innovation (Ellonen, Blomqvist and Puumalainen, 2008).


Leaders are often required to adapt in the face of a changing organisational or business environment. Effective leadership means being able to evolve strategy in line with new demands or situations and being open to new ideas or ways of working. Strong leaders are creative and think outside the box for ideas – they are constantly looking to innovate where appropriate, and encourage others to do so too. Critical to strong leadership is the ability to remain calm, rational and effective in the face of a changing or volatile environment. A report by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) has shown that some of these characteristics, among others, relate positively to people being innovative at work (Patterson, Kerrin and Gatto-Roissard, 2009).

Adaptable leaders:

  • Ask questions and are committed to learning
  • Understand how they tend to react to change and how to modify or regulate this reaction where necessary
  • Keep an open mind to new ways of doing things
  • Stay alert and attentive to where something may not be working

By Martin Reed, CEO at Thomas International