Leadership Study Reveals Six Key Characteristics of Successful Leaders


Skillsoft's white paper on Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age revealed the results of their research into the leadership skills required in the 21st Century. In previous articles, I reviewed the seven practical leadership techniques for today's leaders put forward by the study authors.

I concluded that these seven techniques are complementary and overlap in certain ways. I then pointed out connections between them and current practice. The putting forward of these techniques is not so much reinventing the wheel as it is repurposing it.

In this article, I want to consider the top six characteristics of successful leaders identified in the Skillsoft study. These six leadership characteristics are:

  • global perspective
  • future-focused
  • excels at building relationships
  • high level of integrity
  • collaborative approach
  • open to new ideas

These characteristics were distilled from the input of 1,100 individual respondents from organizations around the world. To my mind, they affirm what has to a significant degree become the common wisdom in our industry. Skillsoft's researchers ask why, if we already know what type of leadership is required in the 21st Century, is it not as evident in practice as it should be? Let's look at each characteristic, then, and consider what we can do in practice to strengthen our own leadership behaviors.

Global Perspective

It is possible to develop a global perspective only by leaving home. The shock of having to interact, trade, solve problems, negotiate and work with people from other cultures is necessary practical experience for developing "cultural competence".

Perhaps the most critical skill in this process is that of active listening, which is certainly a skill that can be learned and practiced at home and applied globally. Active listening does not come naturally to most people. It is an acquired skill. It works across cultural boundaries, although it is necessary to be acutely aware of cultural nuances while doing so. For example, shaking your head from side to side in India signifies agreement and making direct eye contact with someone in authority is still, in many countries, frowned upon.

In my view, "global" no longer encompasses only the economic, social, cultural and political arenas. It must include environmental consciousness (or what Daniel Goleman calls "Ecological Intelligence"). True global focus includes a constant quest for innovation to mitigate the environmental damage that results from our efforts to manufacture, trade, transport and entertain. In short, you need to come up with new processes, products or services that will either turn around environmental damage or be neutral in their impact.


In order to be a future-focused leader you need to spend time studying trends and patterns in your organization's sector of the market and scanning the environment surrounding it. Global markets are now so dynamic and interconnected that a burst housing bubble in the USA mid-West, for example, can trigger a decline in cement sales in Tanzania, which then unexpectedly opens up the market for Chinese imports into East Africa.

Be analytical and critical in your daily work. What are the future implications of what you're involved in right now? You need to be systematic in your examination of your regular tasks, your industry and global trends. This is the substance of your competence in being future-focused. Set time aside to do this and be as diligent in honoring it as if it were a Board meeting.

Learn to use visionary language. Use your insights to formulate a vision of future possibilities and practice talking about it in pragmatic and enthusiastic ways. Employees identify future-focus in leaders as important because they need the sense of purpose that comes with a vision that makes sense to them.

In the Skillsoft study, "progress in one's work" is identified as the top motivator for employees. What an ideal opportunity to bring the future into the conversation with phrases such as, "your work is in progress", "progress has been made", "we're working towards an end result that that will make a difference to people's lives", and "thanks for the great effort and contribution you're making".

Excels at Building Relationships

Trust is at the heart of relationship-building. According to the late Stephen Covey, it is earned incrementally, like interest in a bank account. The higher the balance of trust in the account, the greater the risks you can take without jeopardizing the relationship. High levels of trust support your quest for innovation. Honesty is the DNA of trust. Be sincere and truthful (including being able to say, "Yes, I do have that information, but I cannot disclose it to you because of [fill in the blank].")

Know your own values, biases and triggers. Be clear and conscious of the necessary boundaries in different social and work situations. Sharpen your interpersonal skills. Show and expect respect and empathy. Demonstrate cultural responsiveness. Be willing to advocate on behalf of others. Don't avoid conflict. Seek ways of using disagreement to build deeper understanding and respect for alternative viewpoints.

High Level of Integrity

Integrity requires consistency. When a leader's behavior and attitude are predictable and consistent in a variety of situations, team members develop confidence in the leader's judgment. Dependability builds trust.

A leader with a global perspective and integrity is grounded in their own value system, within their own social culture. Such a leader consistently finds a balance between remaining constant with their values and being open to recognizing integrity informed by different and sometimes conflicting values from other cultures. This kind of leader does not fear difference.

Collaborative Approach

Understand the process of communicating and exploring ideas, such as listening, clarifying, reframing, co-creating and accommodating. You need the ability and the right techniques to stimulate creativity and co-operation.

Collaboration requires having a shared vision and a common purpose. The ability to detach from your own preferred solution is critical to building truly innovative co-operation. Don't be afraid to use a neutral facilitator to manage the process so that you are free to participate as an equal with others.

Open to New Ideas

Implicit in open-mindedness is the courage to take risks, make mistakes, learn and move on. When confronted by a completely new idea, instead of thinking (or saying), "It'll never work", which often is rooted in the fear of the unknown, step away from inertia and explore what you already have control over that might make it work.

I trust that these ideas have provided you with a practical sense of what to aim for in developing 21st Century leadership characteristics in yourself and how you can start the journey. Begin from the edge of your current competency using a collaborative learning process and with a growth mindset. Leadership development is a wide open field with scope for many seeds to be planted and different species of leadership to grow from it.


  • Skillsoft Ireland Limited (2012). Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age
  • Goleman, Daniel (2010). Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy, Crown Business
  • Chin, C. O. and Gaynier, L. P. (2006). "Global Leadership Competence: A Cultural Intelligence Perspective", MBAA 2006 Conference Presentation

Copyright © Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, process consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at

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