What is leadership and the traits necessary to be a leader?

By Hannah Kingston

Friday September 4, 2020


Recently we examined leadership and what it takes to join the ranks in an SES capacity, including advice on how to make your CV stand out among the crowd and what those calling the shots look for in a leader, but what is leadership and what are the traits necessary to be a leader?

Leadership, as described by Forbes is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal. Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power. Leadership requires others, and that implies they don’t need to be “direct reports.”

In a 2018 study, one of the largest of its kind, which interviewed 300,000 business leaders, it was found that there are ten common traits found among leaders today.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman asked their respondents to list their top four competencies from a list of sixteen key leadership skills. Following the data analysis of the large study, Zenger and Folkman compiled a list of the most common ten traits found among the leaders.

Here are the most common leadership traits Zenger and Folkman found in their study.

Inspires and motivates others

Natural leaders have the ability to inspire and motivate those around them, ensuring that their team is unified in achieving the bigger picture.

Displays high integrity and honesty

Great leaders talk the talk but they also walk the walk. They take ownership of their work and are responsible for their team’s output.

Solves problems and analyzes issues

Great leaders care about the what but they also need to understand the how. They will go to great lengths to solve issues and craft game plans for the future.

Drives for results

Great leaders are results orientated. Being proactive and seeing their objectives materialize is a key priority.

Communicates powerfully and prolifically

Commonly, leaders are good communicators with strong interpersonal skills, their goal is to communicate effectively to ensure that their responsibilities continue to move forward.

Builds relationships

Natural leaders enjoy building relationships with those around them. They build relationships not only with those who can offer strategic gain but also those who they wish to help along their career. In simpler terms, the natural leader is a people’s person.

Displays technical or professional expertise

Commonly, leaders begin with a technical or professional area of expertise. Oftentimes, they will have mastered the area of expertise before moving into a leadership role.

Displays a strategic purpose

Natural leaders put weight on the bigger picture. They don’t get weighed down in the bureaucracy or tit for tats within a working eco-system. Their eyes are always on the prize for the benefit of the bigger picture and the wider team.

Develops others

Great leaders understand that investing in their team means investing in their future. Great leaders will pick their team members up and do what is best for their professional development.


Great leaders innovate, they don’t settle fine, they want great!

The 2018 data matches up with insights from Terry Moran AC who says that certain qualities are particularly important to him when it comes to appointing senior SES officers and deputy secretaries in the public sector.

Moran says that he looks for:

  • Someone who is an expert in their field
  • Someone who has the ability to touch the ground running
  • Someone who has the guile and confidence to take their team through reform
  • Someone who is loyal to their colleagues and departments
  • Someone who sees themselves as a natural manager
  • Someone who has established and well-respected networks

Read: Wondering what kind of leader you are? Here are 7 of the most common leadership styles 

Read: How to get a promotion in the public sector: 10 tips for getting ahead 





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