What makes a good leader? Thoughts on the Academic View

4 minute read

It seems as though there are constantly new eye-catching graphs on how to be a good leader popping up on LinkedIn newsfeeds everywhere. Often, these are an amalgamation of general positive adjectives or key traits.

When you think of a good leader, you may think of someone who really shaped you as a person or had a measurable impact. And when you think of what constitutes a bad leader, a scary memory from school or work may come creeping in.

This is why I was curious to start reading a book recommended by my professor ahead of my next module, ‘The Powers to Lead’ by Joseph Nye.

Nye is the Former United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and now a professor at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.

His book explores the question of what effective leadership looks like through academic research, and real-life current and historical leaders.

I highly enjoyed this read. It was accessible and yet filled with thought-provoking insights.

Most importantly, it reminded me that in a time of unprecedented access to a wide range of information, reading thoroughly researched academic resources provides a lot of value.

Some key points stood out to me.

Traits of a good leader

One of the key points made is that there is no 'perfect image' of a leader. In over a thousand studies cited by Harvard Business Review, none have produced a clear profile of the ideal leader.

Instead, Nye proposes that ‘the traits most relevant to effective leadership depend on the context, and the situation creates followers needs that lead them to search for particular leaders.’

I found this interesting as I think it is very true. One type of leadership style may motivate a particular group but may have the opposite effect in a different company or national culture. In a way, this is referenced a lot as the 'right fit' for a team or company; good leadership depends on what the ultimate goals are, as well the person themselves.

Smart power

Nye also talks about 'hard' and 'soft' power. Hard power relies on carrots and sticks, and is often formal power such as police power, financial power and hire/fire. Soft power is the ability to attract and cooperate with others to get the outcome you want. Too much of either is not good, and can only work for a limited time.

The ability to combine both is called 'smart power', and Nye argues that this is what is required for effective leadership.

Particularly interesting is Nye's observation that in the information revolution and modern globalised world, ‘hierarchies are becoming flatter and embedded in fluid networks of contacts.’

In a world where information is king, command-and-control styles impede the access to crucial information to lead a wider and more global group of followers. How can you lead a group if you have no idea what the group needs from you?

I also think most people are more motivated when they feel positive feelings about themselves and the wider group - ultimately the carrot and stick approach may only work temporarily, but influencing others on a longer-term basis is more complex and needs more co-operation and listening.

Contextual intelligence

Nye argues that using smart power by itself is not enough to lead effectively.

Every group, department or organisation will have its own culture, or 'way of doing things', and contextual intelligence is the ability to adapt smart power to the context.

Misusing the wrong levers of hard and soft power, even if it was highly effective in a previous life, will get you ‘voted off the island’, as said by Intuit CEO Steve Bennett.

I found the framework depicted in this chapter to be very useful. Nye outlines five dimensions to consider when developing contextual intelligence: culture, distribution of power resources, followers' needs and demands, time urgency and information flows.

It's all too easy to be used to doing things a certain way and finding it to be effective, but it's a great reminder that old solutions do not necessarily fit new situations.

Ethical leadership

Finally, Nye touches on what ethical leadership means, and there is a lot of broader philosophy quoted here. But I found the distinction between ethical goals, means and consequences an important one.

To assess the ethics of a strategy, you have to assess the ethics of each pillar - the goals may be ethical, but what about the means? What about if the goals and means both have an ethical drive, but the ultimate consequences do not? It's a more thorough and structured way to think about ethical decisions which I hadn't considered before.

I do really recommend reading this book. It's not a long read and some of it is intuitive from practical experience. But reviewing real case studies, real leaders and a concise summary of all of the research has been very thought-provoking in my own day-to-day.

*Alexandra publishes new editions of her newsletter every month. To be notified, subscribe to her newsletter on LinkedIn.

Oxford Executive Diploma in Global Business