How Do We Define the Qualities of a Good Leader?

In the U.S., we tend to have a narrow definition of what makes a good leader. How can we expand our vision of how a leader should look and act?

A key diversity competence for senior-level employees and hiring managers alike is ensuring that each employee has ample opportunity to develop into a successful leader.

Unfortunately, stereotypes about women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities can prevent us from viewing these employees as good leaders. The error of overlooking leadership potential in people born outside of the U.S., people from minority religious groups, and those with less culturally familiar leadership styles has also been widely reported.

In our society in particular, we tend to have a very narrow definition of what makes a good leader. So how can you ensure unconscious biases aren’t getting in the way of you spotting leadership potential and nurturing it? How can you broaden your view of what makes a good leader?

What makes a good leader?

We tend to assume good leaders are those who demonstrate traits typically associated with and celebrated in white, cisgender, able-bodied men, like assertiveness and competitiveness. On the contrary, though, there are countless ways to be a great leader that draw on very different qualities—not to mention, alternative leadership methods are actually linked to better results in the workplace:


The effectiveness of leadership styles depends on who’s being led.

It turns out that the effectiveness of the assertive, competitive leadership style may depend on who’s being led. One study showed that leaders with an assertive style performed poorly with employees who were also assertive, but successfully with employees who were less assertive. The converse was also found: leaders with an introverted style performed best with more assertive employees.

Listening to others and being flexible is key.

Leaders who are encouraged to listen to others’ opinions and cultivate their own distinct leadership style (rather than following rigid norms) have been known to demonstrate thoughtful decision-making, inspire trust and commitment office-wide, and increase worker satisfaction and performance.

Collaboration is often more effective than competitiveness.

Studies also tell us that a leadership style that is marked by collaboration—and typically demonstrated by female leaders—is more effective on certain key measures than a style marked by competitiveness.

Identifying Leadership Potential

When mentoring employees and scouting for leadership, keep in mind the following guidelines:

>   Imagine potential leaders from a broad range of backgrounds.
>   Keep in mind that there are many ways to lead.
>   Ask whether your team might perform better with a leadership style that’s less familiar to you.
>   Encourage your employees to pursue their own authentic leadership style, rather than striving to fit into a stereotype of what makes a good leader.

Encourage your employees to pursue their own authentic leadership style, since there are many ways to lead.

Do you want to foster inclusive leadership?
Check out our courses on inclusive hiring and organizational culture.

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This post is part of a series addressed to HR and other hiring managers about integrating diversity competence into each step of the employment lifecycle, from recruitment and hiring, to creating an inclusive workplace, to evaluating and cultivating leaders who will take inclusive excellence at your enterprise to the next level.

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Olivia McGill
Research and Writing

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collaboration vs. competition
diverse leadership
inclusive leadership
leadership qualities to develop
qualities of a good leader

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