The five traits that predict long-term leadership success
  • leadership
  • Blog post

The five traits that predict long-term leadership success

Everyone has an idea of what they think a good leader looks like. But ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers. And that leaves you where you started.

If you’re looking to take your leadership skills – and your career – beyond where you are today, what really makes the difference? What do you need to focus on?

An analysis published in Harvard Business Review may offer some guidance. Researchers at the executive development consultancy Egon Zehnder studied data from executive development programs going back some 30 years to see if they could identify factors that predicted success in top executive roles.

First the bad news: Executives themselves have a dim view of such programs. In organizations that have programs to identify and cultivate “high pots” – high-potential employees – only 24% of executives think they work. Only 13% have confidence in the leadership at their own organizations.

But by digging into the data, Egon Zehnder found five key traits that did a good job of predicting whether someone would ultimately succeed in a leadership role. Keep in mind that these aren’t simply the traits of people who were already leaders – they’re qualities found in “diamonds in the rough” who would eventually become successful leaders.

And the winners are…

Those five traits are:

1. Motivation

This is the squishiest of the five, the researchers note, because it’s highly dependent on context. The “right” motivation for the leader of a major social-justice nonprofit will be very different from what motivates the head of an industrial distributor. The common thread is that leaders have a deep desire to excel in their chosen field. The nonprofit leader wants to lead an organization that makes a difference.  The distributor CEO wants his or her company to deliver the best service in the industry and work with the best partners.

Action step: Understand what motivates you. What is it about your job that sparks your passion? Maybe it’s the product or service you deliver. Maybe it’s your team. How can you be the best at what you do? If you pursue what matters, the rest tends to fall into place.

2. Curiosity

People who go on to become great leaders are intensely curious about everything. They want to know how stuff works, why things are the way they are, what changes are on the horizon, and more. They solicit feedback and get excited by learning new things.

Action step: Cultivate your curiosity by asking questions. Even if you think you know the answer. Ask “Why?” Or “Tell me more.” Or “What do you think?”

3. Insight

Egon Zehnder offers a pragmatic definition of this often-elusive quality: the ability to gather and make sense of a vast range of information; to change one’s views; and to set new directions. In other words, it’s the opposite of a “because we’ve always done it that way” mentality.

Action step: Consider whether your thinking has gotten stale. Are you seeking out new sources of information? Talking to people outside your immediate circle of friends and colleagues? Are you aware of your own assumptions and constantly testing them? Are you looking at the big picture, or just what’s right in front of you? Are you redirecting your team’s efforts to reflect changing conditions and new information?

4. Engagement

Engagement is about how you connect to others, and how they connect with you. As you rise in the ranks, it’s easy to end up feeling disconnected, but you can’t inspire people to do their best unless they feel that you truly understand and care about them.

Action step: Get out from behind your desk. Practice management-by-walking-around. No matter how busy you are, make time for the people you lead. Ask their opinions about the business, whether they’re in the executive suite or working on the loading dock. Ask what they like about their jobs and what could be better. Ask about their families, where they went on vacation, what they do when they’re not working. Know their kids’ names.

5. Determination

It’s what’s commonly called “grit” these days – the ability to stick with something and see it through. In numerous studies, grit has been associated with long-term success. And it’s a quality that can be developed.

Action step: Identify times when you put your shoulder to the wheel and achieved a long-term goal – pursuing a degree, breaking into a difficult industry, overcoming a career setback. Consider what it took to reach that goal. Are you working toward a similar goal today? If not, why not? There’s never a time when you can afford to coast.

Source: Fernandez-Araoz, C., Roscoe, A., Aramaki, K. (2017). Turning potential into success. Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec, pp. 87-93.


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