There must be thousands of blog posts about how to be a successful leader: the magic stardust; the x-factor; the three levels; six factors; four steps; five secrets; nine ways…

If you’ve read or tried any of these recipes you’ll know there are no secrets, no magic potions to be taken, no easy routes.

Leadership is a role, not a title or a position on the org chart.

But perhaps there are some common traits, some characteristics that successful leaders have…And most of us wish we had more of.

Successful leaders are not super-human and will make mistakes, forget stuff, display negative emotion and have off-days. But they’re still likely to score above average on the these ten traits:


Great leaders have a calm confidence about themselves. Their leadership comes from a place where ego does not rule. They are driven and goal orientated, not (just) for themselves but for their followers and their organizations.


Great leaders know they are good and they wear it well.


Great leaders have passion and depth and are excellent communicators. They can be direct and clear-cut, but play the ball and not the man.


They have a high level of personal energy, stamina and a bias for action. They are not committee people, and are not desk-bound. They seek out opportunities to talk with employees, customers, and other stakeholders.


They can adapt their leadership style to a situation but always do so from a bedrock of authenticity. They have developed a flexible leadership style but the content of their message is consistent.


Great leaders understand their shadow side and their shortcomings. They are aware of how the less well-developed aspects of their personality can affect their actions.


An important part of the leadership role is to be a depository for other people’s worries and fears. People have a need to mentally ‘unload’ their anxieties — to believe that even if they cannot see exactly how all the bits fit together there is someone who can. The basis for this vital role is trust.

Ability to execute

A leader I once knew had all the right stuff going for him — huge amount of energy, enthusiasm, talent, vision, IQ, EQ and guts. He was held in high regard by the whole organization. Having missed his targets for three years in succession, the shareholders and the employees simply gave up on him. Ability to make stuff happen and deliver on promises is vital.


Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, cancelled the analyst guidance briefings on his first day in office. He figured no-one would sack him on his first day. An easy call? Probably not as the share price tumbled. Polman had (and has) the courage of his convictions.


Of course. Not always. But often.

So how does your favourite leader score? How do you score?

Chris Martlew’s new book, Changing the Mind of the Organization — Building Agile Teams, is available at,, and other good bookstores worldwide.

“Brilliant!” Itzik Amiel, bestselling author of Attention Switch.