When you think about the qualities of a good leader, you might have specific ideas.
Some may imagine a well-dressed, confident person who makes important decisions, listens to their team or works long hours.
Others might think of a quiet genius who sets up systems and lets their team take charge.
When it comes to great leaders, there’s no one-size-fits-all.
A person’s unique strengths, weaknesses and personality matter more than you think — and what matters most is how they flex these according to what their team wants and needs.
What is leadership?
Leadership, according to a dictionary at least, is defined as “the ability to act as a guide; show the way.”
Sounds simple. It’s harder done than said, which is why 84% of US workers say their managers create unnecessary work and stress for them and 40% of workers feel burnt out.
It’s easy to blame bad bosses everywhere for the dread many of us feel going to work. In defence of them, however, it’s not just them that’s causing workers to feel more anxious and stressed today.
Stakeholders are now more demanding, companies are going global, making every digital is now a must-have and innovation is required now more than ever.
Still, it’s no excuse for managers to be toxic, narcissistic, unrealistic, or abusive — some of the worst traits that can make work a nightmare.
Are the qualities of a good leader the opposite of these then?
The answer is not as simple as we’d like to think.
What are the qualities of a good leader?
“Good” is subjective. “Good leader” perhaps more so. But there is a time when most of us can agree their seeing the qualities of a good leader: during a crisis.
When Indians sought to overthrow their British colonial masters after over eight decades, one University College London-educated lawyer stood out for his non-violent, non-cooperation movement.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was eloquent, extremely self-disciplined, abstained from many forms of indulgence and commanded great respect from everyone, from the poor to the entire Indian Congress.
It wasn’t long before he was seen as a saint among his millions of followers.
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread disease, death and misinformation, Jacinda Ardern trumped all other national leaders with her swift, yet compassionate action.
“These decisions will place the most significant restrictions on New Zealanders’ movements in modern history. But it is our best chance to slow the virus and to save lives,” she said when they country had only 52 cases.
“Please be strong, be kind and united against COVID-19.”
Soon, New Zealand had zero cases.
Beyond Gandhi and Ardern, who are the top leaders of the 21st century and the other qualities of a good leader?
8 top leaders in the 21st century and the qualities that make them a good leader
1. Barack Obama
Top leader quality: Effective communication
Barack Obama, the 44th President of the US, has the distinction of being the nation’s first African-American president and is known to be an excellent leader — thanks to his effective communication skills.
Obama’s ability to inspire and bring people together is remarkable. He’s a great speaker who can connect with all sorts of folks, young and old, from different backgrounds — uniting, instead of dividing them.
With people focused on the same goals, he was able to make great strides in healthcare and climate change.
2. Elon Musk
Top leader quality: Courage
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has some extraordinary qualities that make him a great leader in the 21st century.
One of his most impressive traits is his bold determination. He is known for setting big goals, like popularising electric cars or colonising Mars.
These are bold ideas but as Musk is unafraid of ridicule, he can push them forward, take risks, and make the previously unthinkable happen.
And this business magnate doesn’t give up even when things get tough or make him unpopular.
Musk believes, “We should not be afraid of doing something just because some amount of failure is likely to occur. If our forefathers had taken that approach, the US wouldn’t exist.”
Musk doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to showing bravery. When he founded SpaceX, his aerospace company, at the time, the commercial space industry was largely uncharted territory, and many considered it an extremely risky endeavour.
But Musk believed otherwise. He saw the importance of reducing the cost of space travel to make it more accessible. He invested a significant portion of his personal wealth into SpaceX, and the company’s early years were marked by numerous setbacks and near-failures, including multiple rocket launch failures.
Today, SpaceX has become a major player in the aerospace industry, with contracts with NASA and other organisations — all of which wouldn’t have been possible had Musk caved into his fears.
3. Greta Thunberg
Top leader quality: Passion
Greta Thunberg is a 20-year-old climate activist who has made waves worldwide. Despite her age, there is no denying that she has many qualities of a good leader that you could follow.
Chief among these is passion. She cares deeply about our planet and the future it holds. Greta’s passion for climate change has inspired many students — and even adults — to take action and make a difference.
Driven by passion, she was able to speak up and challenge world leaders about their actions or inactions when it comes to climate change.
Despite being only 15 at that time, her solitary strike outside the Swedish Parliament quickly garnered attention and inspired countless students and young people worldwide to follow suit.
This sparked a global youth-led climate movement — forcing leaders and decision-makers around the world to take action.
4. Warren Buffet
Top leader quality: Embraces mistakes
Hailing from Omaha, Nebraska, Warren Buffet is one of the top 10 richest people in the world. He gained his wealth after buying his first shares at just 11 years of age and becoming Berkshire Hathaway’s majority shareholder and CEO.
One of Buffet’s great qualities is how candid he is about mistakes. I
In an interview with Performance Magazine, he once said, “If every shot was a hole-in-one, it wouldn’t make the game very interesting. You have to hit balls in the woods a few times to learn how to invest and how to lead others to performance standards.”
By understanding what went wrong previously, Buffett is able to make better decisions in the future. He doesn’t rush into making quick profits but instead focuses on making sound, long-lasting investments.
5. Malala Yousafzai
Top leader quality: Determination
As a schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck at point-blank range by Taliban gunmen. Despite their savagery, she emerged stronger than ever — with plenty of qualities of a good leader.
Today, she’s an Oxford graduate and on a mission to inspire people worldwide, especially girls denied access to education.
Her unwavering determination to fight for girls’ education has inspired scores of students and young people all over the world.
She teaches many that even in the face of challenges, or even with a gun in your face, persevering for what’s right is a powerful act of leadership.
6. Narendra Modi
Top leader quality: Connecting with people
Narendra Modi is not just the 14th Prime Minister of India but the world’s most popular leader today.
He created history when he became the first prime minister outside the Congress party to win two consecutive terms with a full majority.
But what truly sets him apart is how he’s loved by the most populous nation in the world — thanks to how well he can connect with people.
Specifically, 1.4 billion of them.
Although he’s 73 years old, he uses technology and social media to reach out to many people, especially the youth.
He connects with people through his monthly radio show“Mann Ki Baat” (Conversations From the Heart).
Radio may be a forgotten product of another era but in India, it offers Modi a deep connection with the masses.
Speaking straight into their ears, he sounds like a learned, paternal figure explaining the issues of basic government services, social concerns and national pride.
He speaks the language of the people, engaging and addressing their daily challenges — making everyone feel heard.
7. Indra Nooyi
Top leader quality: Championing diversity and inclusion
The former PepsiCo chairperson and CEO, Indra Nooyi, consistently ranked among the top of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business.
She led the world’s second-largest food and beverage enterprise in a time of extraordinary change.
Nooyi is known as a well-rounded leader, but what makes her stand apart is how she thrived in a man’s world.
PepsiCo is a company with products sold in more than 200 countries and territories and with over US$22.3 billion in profits as of July this year.
When Nooyi first rose through its ranks, she became a role model for women worldwide — showing that a young woman in India can become the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies.
Throughout her career, she would continue to advocate for diversity in the workplace, encouraging people of different backgrounds to work together.
8. Taylor Swift
Top leader quality: Authenticity
Taylor Swift is no billionaire superstar if not for her authenticity. She’s a songwriter who pours her heart and soul into her music, fearless when it comes to expressing herself.
Teaching girls out there to be true to themselves and unafraid to express their thoughts and emotions., she shows that it is important to embrace your own voice.
Swift’s music often reflects her growth, struggles, and triumphs, allowing her fans to relate their experiences to her. This leadership approach fosters a strong emotional connection between her and her fans.
Any manager seeking to become a leader can learn from Swift’s “love story” with her fans is remarkable.
Although Swift is a billionaire, Swifties can still relate to her on a personal level through her music and lyrics.
Many of her songs are autobiographical, and she often draws from her own experiences and emotions.
This storytelling helps her fans relate to her, as they feel like they are part of her journey.
For example, her album “Red” looks at love, heartbreak and self-discovery — which of us have not been through this?