Leadership traits, behaviours and skills

What qualities does a leader need?

Leadership is a subject that has caught the imaginations of people for centuries. Originally the focus was on rulers of countries: what made them great and successful. Today attention often turns to the leaders of organizations. Over 2,000 books on leadership are published each year. And yet there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership.

In this section we trace the development of leadership theory. Some leadership theories centre on the personality and traits of the individual leader. Others focus on the behaviour of the leader, seeing their leadership in terms of what they do rather than their characteristics. A third group of theories view leadership as specific to the context with different situations and contexts requiring different styles of leadership.

Activity 1: Theories of leadership

The following booklet provides you with the background of what some of the world's leading thinkers have to say about leadership.

As you read this introduction to leadership reflect on:

  • The importance of the personality, qualities and capabilities of the leader
  • The contrast between transaction and transformational styles of leadership
  • The relationship between leader and follower
  • The function or role of leadership, as opposed to the personality of the leader
  • The role of the leader in bringing about change.

If you are reading this document as part of a group reflection you may wish to divide it up into different sections.

For each section report back on:

  • THE BIG IDEA: Provide a short one paragraph summary of the big idea.
  • Sentence: Record a sentence that was meaningful to you and helped you gain a deeper understanding of the text.
  • Phrase: Record a phrase that moved, engaged, or provoked you.
  • Word: Record a word that captured your attention or struck you as powerful.

Leadership in context

In 2014 the consultancy firm McKinsey surveyed 375,000 people from 165 organizations across multiple industries and geographies to explore the effectiveness of different kinds of leadership behavior at companies in different states of organizational health. They concluded that recognizing and responding to an organization's health is far more important than the specific traits or behaviors of individual leaders. Organizational health changes over time. McKinsey argues that effective situational leadership adapts to these changes by identifying and exhibiting the kinds of behavior required at the time. Therefore, personal leadership styles need to be able to evolve, with particular reference to context.

The analysis yielded what McKinsey called a leadership staircase - a pyramid of behavior similar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In this staircase there are certain forms of behavior that are always essential (facilitating group collaboration + demonstrating concern for people + championing desired change + offering a critical perspective). As the health of the organization improves additional leadership behaviors are required.

The conclusion when you have all those context driven and particular leadership traits is that there is not a particular style of leadership which works everywhere for everyone all of the time . What you have to do is to understand what it is that you want to hang on to and not change and what it is you might need to change and be flexible with in your leadership style to be most effective.

Click here to access the McKinsey report.

Activity 2: My school

  • Read the McKinsey report Leadership in context.
  • Where is your school on the leadership staircase?
  • Identify what you do well and what leadership behaviors the school now needs.

    21st Century School Leadership Skills: Administrator Self-Assessment

    The US National Association of Secondary School Principals have designed an Administrator Self-Assessment instrument that will assist you in determining your areas of skill strength and establishing your professional development needs. Research on leadership development confirms that individuals improve by building on their skill strengths.

    The National Association of Secondary School Principals’ (www.nassp.org) assessment centre has identified the following 10 skills as those which not only describe what school leaders do most of their time but reflect where school leaders have the greatest success and failures. These skills are ordered into four headings:

    Setting instructional direction

    • Setting instructional direction
    • Teamwork
    • Sensitivity

    Resolving Complex Problems

    • Judgments
    • Results orientation
    • Organizational ability

    Communication Skills

    • Oral communication
    • Written communication

    Developing Self and Others

    • Development of others
    • Understanding own strengths and weaknesses

    The items listed under each category are known as key behaviors and define the critical components of practice for that skill.

    Click here to access a PDF copy of the 21st Century School Leadership Skills: Administrator Self-Assessment.

    Activity 3: Administrators Self-Assessment

    • Read the definition of each skill and reflect on your current practice of the skill.
    • Read each of the key behaviors, reflect on your practice of that behavior, and rate yourself by circling the number that best depicts your practice.
    • After rating all of the key behaviors in a skill category, calculate the skill quotient and enter the quotient at the bottom of the grid.
    • Enter the skill quotient for each skill area in the appropriate box. Analyze that data to begin to get a sense of your skill strengths.
    • To confirm or challenge your own perceptions, distribute the 21st Century School Administrator Skills Observer-Assessment to up to ten colleagues in order to gather their feedback on you against the same skills and behaviors. 
    • By bringing together your self-assessment and that of the ten observers you will have a rich data set to reflect on your leadership skills and behaviors.

    Expectations of Leaders

    What do colleagues in your school expect of you as leaders? Do you know? How do you know?

    Activity 4: Leaders' Expectations

    This activity encourages you to reflect on peoples' expectations of leaders and evaluate which are the most important ones for you and your school at this moment in its history. The activity could also be run with your whole staff team, but ensure that you also leave some blank sheets of paper so that they can write additional expectations on them.

    • Use the Diamond 9 protocol to evaluate the importance of each of these expectations for your school at this moment in its history.
    • Read the following list of expectations people have of their leaders and reflect individually on their relative importance.
    • As a leadership group create your own ranking of the 9 most important items / statements, displayed as a diamond with their most important idea at the top.
    • In groups explain your decisions. How did you choose the 9 to include? What is the relationship between each level? What were the key issues raised in discussion when trying to prioritize?
    The statements
    • Be flexible
    • Motivate
    • Support
    • Provide vision
    • Be strategic
    • Listen attentively to us
    • Model thinking and behaviors you expect of others
    • Good coaching skills
    • Be principled
    • Excellent communication skills
    • Good facilitator
    • Excellent teacher
    • Value others' success
    • Don't blame others
    • Be organized
    • Manage resources with equity
    • Ensure safe environment for all
    • Link with community
    • Be value driven
    • Strong decision maker
    • Good influencer
    • Have high expectations for all
    • Pupil centred
    • Innovative
    • Creative thinker
    • Be prepared for the unexpected
    • Plan meaningful professional development for staff
    • Know your staff well - their strengths and weaknesses
    • Manage systems efficiently
    • Be organized
    • Act with integrity
    • Tell the truth
    • Excellent interpersonal skills
    • Strong decision-maker
    • Establish clear goals
    • Invest in others
    • Work collaboratively


    In a study of 195 leaders in 15 countries over 30 global organizations participants were asked to choose the 15 most important leadership competencies from a list of 74. Top of the list was having high ethical and moral standards (67%). “This competency is all about behaving in a way that is consistent with your values. If you find yourself making decisions that feel at odds with your principles or justifying actions in spite of a nagging sense of discomfort, you probably need to reconnect with your core values. I facilitate a simple exercise with my clients called “Deep Fast Forwarding” to help with this. Envision your funeral and what people say about you in a eulogy. Is it what you want to hear? This exercise will give you a clearer sense of what’s important to you, which will then help guide daily decision making.” (The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World, Sunnie Giles, Harvard Business Review March 15, 2016).


    Professor Tim Brighouse shares four main qualities needed by leaders to sustain long-term successful careers. They need:

    • Unwarranted optimism
    • To regard crisis as the norm and complexity as fun
    • An endless well of intellectual curiosity
    • A complete absence of paranoia and self-pity

    Dig deeper

    A very helpful Think Piece on leadership traits, behaviors and skill scan be found in the encyclopedia of information education. Click here to access Classical models of managerial leadership: trait, behavioural, contingency and transformational theory by Doyle, M.E., and Smith, M.K. (2001).

    What Great Principals Do Differently (2013) is an info graphic worth reflecting on.

    Top 9 leadership behaviours that drive employee commitment is a succinct thought piece from the world of business. Click here to access it. Chris Hildrew uses his blog to apply these behaviours to schools - click here to read his blog.

    Fries, K., 8 Essential Qualities That Define Great Leadership, Forbes, February 2018. Although this article is based on leadership in business the qualities are as relevant for school leadership. The qualities are: (1) sincere enthusiasm and passion; (2) integrity – doing what is right; (3) great communication skills, including the importance of listening; (4) loyalty – being in service to the team you are leading; (5) decisiveness – and taking responsibility if things go wrong; (6) managerial competence; (7) empowerment of others to act autonomously; (8) charisma.

    The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World, Sunnie Giles, HBR, March 2016 - a good think piece to read with leadership team.

    In 13 Inspiring Traits of Exceptional Leaders, Glenn Leibowitz describes the following traits:

    1. They trust you to do the job you've been hired to do.

    2. They seek your advice and input.

    3. They find opportunities to let you shine.

    4. They recognize your contributions.

    5. They have your back during tough times.

    6. They are master storytellers.

    7. They challenge you to do bigger and better things.

    8. They express appreciation.

    9. They are responsive.

    10. They know when to apologize.

    11. They give credit where credit is due.

    12. They treat others with dignity and respect.

    13. They care.

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