What makes a good leader?

18 March 2022

Catherine-Maria King, Executive MBA (London) participant explores what attributes make a successful leader.

I started my Warwick Business School Executive MBA in September 2020, and it’s hard to believe that I now only have my dissertation to go before finishing in September 2022. I can honestly say the Executive MBA has been a transformational experience. I still remember how nervous I was coming into The Shard to meet my cohort on the Induction Day. I am from a non-profit background and undertook the MBA with a view to pivoting into the corporate sphere. I had progressed quickly within the non-profit sector, becoming a head of department before the age of 27. Warwick Business School (WBS) offers a wide choice of electives with options for London, Warwick, International and distance learning. Most of the electives I wanted to do fell within the leadership specialism, and this was a great opportunity to hone my leadership skills and learn from others.

On the first day of your core Leadership module, you will be asked the question ‘What makes a good leader?’ The answer is, ‘It depends.’ This is a recurring theme within leadership literature. While this may seem a frustrating answer - it is true. To be a good leader, you must look at the people you are leading. After all, ‘there is no leader without at least one follower’ (pp.157, Kellerman, 2007). This seems obvious, but is often something we, as professionals, neglect in our working lives. In a world where we are so interconnected both digitally and in the ‘real world’, having followers has never been more important. The ability to create an environment where your ‘followers’, or your team thrive is a key indicator of good leadership. Teams with high psychological safety perform better, as we all become more ‘open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe’ (pp.02, Delizonna, 2017). In a leadership context, making your team feel valued, as well as knowing what motivates your team, is key to gaining followers and buy-in to your overarching strategy.

When we think of leaders, whether political, or in a business setting such as CEOs, we think of a person with power and some level of control. The most effective leaders change and adapt their leadership style to better serve the organisation and their team, while still focusing on their own priorities. For instance, when taking on a new leadership role, the ability to ‘empower others to act on the vision’ (pp.01, Kotter, 1995) may require an Adaptive Leadership Style (Northouse, 2016,) rather than an Autocratic Leadership Style in which ‘the manager retains as much power and decision-making authority as possible’ (pp.87, Khan, Khan, et al., 2015). Adaptive Leadership means encouraging your followers to face the challenges they encounter, thereby preparing them for change. It is about empowering followers to face challenges head on, influencing and changing the followers’ thinking. Adaptive Leaders modify their actions to fit circumstances. They create more coherent teams as ‘subordinates commonly differ with regard to their experience, skills, values, and needs, and a leader’s behaviour with different individuals should vary accordingly’ (pp. 82, Yukl, Mahsud, 2010). Adaptive Leaders exemplify the ‘It depends’ response, as they have an ‘ability to understand the leadership situation, and the ability to be flexible when confronted by changing conditions’ (pp. 88, Yukl, Mahsud, 2010).

Of course, different leadership challenges and scenarios require different leadership styles. Different personality traits also influence leadership qualities. A large part of my Executive MBA experience has been learning not only from the professors, but also my world-class cohort. When I chose WBS, I was drawn to the diversity of the student body, and I was not disappointed on meeting my cohort. The breadth of industries and experience within my cohort has enabled me to learn from each person’s individual experience and leadership challenges. This has encouraged cognitive diversity and thought leadership across both the core Leadership module, and electives. This cognitive diversity enhanced classroom discussions, and my Executive MBA experience, generally. When applying Leadership theory to the Executive MBA itself, it raises the question, ‘Who is leading whom?’.

This leads us to consider the concept of leadership qualities and the idea of Social Capital. Social Capital is defined as ‘the capacity of individuals to command scarce resources by virtue of their membership in networks or broader social structures’ (pp.04, Robison, Schmid, Siles, 2002). Leaders with high Social Capital are more charismatic, and due to their high levels of networking, are often easy to follow, and find it easy to gain followers. This suggests a leader can have a good strategy, and all the components of being successful leader, but if they lack charisma or gravitas, they will struggle to gain followers. Charisma can be advantageous but can also prove disastrous. History shows cases where charismatic leaders, particularly dictators such as Hitler, have had such finesse in gaining followers that it has led to catastrophe. We can study how dictators became masters of change-management, and over time duped their followers, and even other leaders by creating a vision, communicating the vision, and creating short term wins (Kotter, 1995).

Dictators aside, leadership teaching has enabled me to reflect on my own leadership style, and relate the theory to both a business setting, and to other areas of life. I would suggest that the MBA is not just a Master’s in Business Administration but educates students to look at the world differently, through a critical lens. What is most remarkable about WBS is that it encourages students to have the courage to discuss difficult leadership challenges within a safe, supportive environment. I have been lucky to learn alongside my brilliant fellow students and I am fortunate to count them all, not only among my professional network, but also as part of my friendship circle. Through WBS I built strong friendships I know I can call upon again in the future, creating a network for life. WBS’s motto is, ‘For the Change Makers’. Now, as I approach the end of my MBA, I know WBS has shaped and empowered me to make courageous changes.

Find out more about the Executive MBA (London) programme here.


Delizonna, L., 2017. High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review8, pp.1-5.

Kellerman, B., 2007. What every leader needs to know about followers. Discovering Leadership, pp.157-166.

Khan, M.S., Khan, I., Qureshi, Q.A., Ismail, H.M., Rauf, H., Latif, A. and Tahir, M., 2015. The styles of leadership: A critical review. Public Policy and Administration Research5(3), pp.87-92.

Kotter, J.P., 1995. Leading change. Harvard Business Review, 2(1), pp.1-10.

Northouse, P.G., 2021. Leadership: Theory and practice. Sage publications.

Robison, L.J., Schmid, A.A. and Siles, M.E., 2002. Is social capital really capital?  Review of social economy60(1), pp.1-21.

Yukl, G. and Mahsud, R., 2010. Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: practice and research62(2), p.81.


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