The qualities of a great leader

The gap between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ leadership is closing, says Tracy Clarke, Standard Chartered’s Europe and Americas CEO

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management Today

Until the late 20th century leadership roles were mostly held by men. As women gradually took on leadership positions, their role models were also male, reinforcing traditional male leadership characteristics. 

Today, men and women are learning from each other, and all are aspiring to emulate qualities that would previously have been considered male or female. This will, ultimately, lead to better leaders, and more diverse, balanced leadership teams – essential for both current and future crises, as well as business as usual.

One of the things that I have reflected on during the COVID-19 is what makes a good leader. Some leadership traits are essential; leaders need to be resilient, results-oriented, bold and aspirational – but the crisis has accentuated the difference between good and great leaders. 

Based on the actions and behaviours of leaders around the world, and my own experiences, I would highlight three key characteristics that differentiate great leaders, particularly during a crisis:


People need clarity to the greatest extent possible, in what is communicated, and how. While, in general, we exist in a stage of ambiguity – and are relatively comfortable with that – the consequences of ambiguity are heightened during a crisis. In a business context, employees want to understand how their role will be affected, what is expected of them, and how this may change today or in the future.

Trying to give clarity about the future is particularly difficult but, during my career, I have found that saying ‘I don’t know that yet’ is better than giving woolly or superficial assurances.

Compassion or care

A crisis – particularly a public health crisis – impacts everyone, but personal experience and anxieties will differ for each person. Good leaders try to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and show genuine care and understanding. This is one I try to emulate with my colleagues. After all, we care about our friends and families, and we should extend this care and compassion into our business contexts.


Leaders need to give people belief and hope in the future. During a crisis, in particular, it can be difficult to look beyond the here and now; creating a vision of the future that people can connect with, and exploring how we might create that future together, is essential for morale and creates momentum coming through and beyond a crisis. Overall, authenticity is essential, and this requires courage and emotional intelligence.

The value of role models

While books and training courses can describe the characteristics of a good leader, there is no substitute for learning from people you admire and respect. In the early stages of their careers, people learn what traits they do – or do not – want to emulate from their immediate line managers. This is an important consideration when deciding who to place in management roles, and when developing a business culture.

In 2015, the United States’ Center for Gender in Organizations published research that explored the transition of leadership traits between men and women. For example, traditional ‘male’ characteristics of discipline, self-esteem, rationality, decisiveness and self-reliance are now just as likely to be demonstrated by women as well as men; likewise, ‘female’ traits of loyalty and sensitivity are now shared by both genders. 

One interesting aspect of this research was that the previously ‘male’ characteristics of consistency and dependability are now more common amongst women than men; conversely, emotional expression is now more likely amongst men than women.

The fluidity of different leadership characteristics – and the move away from gender-defined conventions – is a positive development for the current generation, but particularly the next generation of leaders. Rather than modelling leadership traits that they believe are expected of them, they can look at today’s successful leaders, male or female, and aspire to emulate the characteristics they admire.

This is, however, a huge responsibility for today’s leaders. No-one excels in every attribute; likewise, some characteristics will be more important than others at different times. Consequently, the more diverse our leadership teams – not only by gender, race and sexuality, but also in the range of skills and talents that they offer – the more role models we create with whom the next generation of leaders can identify. 

This helps to foster a more inclusive culture, enhances succession planning and opens up a richer set of experiences and talents on which to draw, during a crisis, and business as usual.

While all leaders need to be results-oriented and resilient, the pandemic has emphasised that the way individuals achieve these results matters, including authenticity, compassion, relationships, communication and collaboration. During the COVID crisis we have seen the most effective leaders on the world stage, and within individual organisations, dial up these strengths, informing the aspirations and qualities of the leaders of tomorrow.

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