What are the characteristics of a good leader?

April 6, 2018
Lesley Keast

Lesley Keast

Assistant Principal at Oasis Academy Nunsthorpe

I have had plenty of leadership training in my time, and worked alongside every single one of Goleman’s leadership styles: visionary, coaching, affiliative, you name it.

From this I can honestly say that there are no right or wrong methods, but there are different methods.

These different methods aren’t drastically different either: they share essential ingredients like being driven by a strong moral purpose, honesty and integrity. All leaders have a vision for the future and a strong belief that this vision is the right future for the children in their school.

Creating buy-in

Think of leadership like driving a bus: leaders need everyone to be ‘on the bus’. A leader is not a leader if there are no followers, so how do you get people to follow you onto your bus? It is necessary to have a clear vision of where you are going, and a strong belief in where the bus is going.

The enthusiasm, belief and clarity with which you share your vision will draw people to you. It will resonate with their own beliefs and trigger their personal drive.

Some people will already have plenty of opinions, but often need a leader to clarify their beliefs into a strong clear vision. These people will willingly jump on the bus. These are the followers, who need a strong leader for their own visions to become a reality and whose cumulative strong personal drive, focused in the same direction on the bus, will result in synergy, a result greater and stronger than the individual sums.

Being human

Leaders also need to be human. A good leader will treat their staff with the same care as their pupils. Some adults will need more nurture, some will need strong boundaries, some need encouragement, and some have creative needs.

Effective leaders will identify the individual needs of their staff and adapt their style, often providing a much-needed scaffold on which to cling while climbing through the tangled web of leadership strategies. This will help develop new leaders.

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Seek first to understand, not to be understood

There comes a point when new leaders need to stand on their own two feet, and be confident to make their own leadership decisions. You as a leader needs to create an environment for this to happen: to step back on the balcony.

The maxim ‘seek first to understand, not to be understood’ is a vital skill to build effective trusting relationships with staff, another important leadership trait.

Think of it this time like being at a party; leaders can often fall into operator/manager mode (spinning wildly on the dancefloor), as opposed to being in leader mode (leaning on the balcony, watching). There are days when operator/manager mode is required, but leaders must get back to the balcony for that strategic whole-school view.

There’s no denying that we as leaders have a lot to think about, and excelling in all areas of leadership seems to be an insurmountable challenge. But by having a strong sense of belief in our own vision of the future, by building trusting relationships, by seeking to understand our team, creating synergy and being brave, it can be achieved.

Moreover, all of that should be done on the balcony and not on the dance floor. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?


Lesley is a current participant on our 2016 Future Leaders cohort. Future Leaders is a two-year intensive leadership development programme for senior leaders who aim to become headteachers of schools in challenging contexts within three years.


This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.


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