Top 5 leadership skills: Insights perspective

Endless research exists on what it takes to be a great leader. It’s often geared to large corporations with shareholders and thousands of employees to lead.  

But of course, influential effective leaders are needed in a host of settings and types of organisations, from global, profit-focused tech to cause-driven charities of all sizes, and even complex public sector teams. 

In this article, we consider close-up what we, as humans who show up for work each day, instinctively need from our leaders.  

We zoom in on the human aspect of how great leaders make people feel and how to get the best from the colleagues we lead.   

Perhaps only a few of us ever actually experience leaders who have the full suite qualities and skills we’ll explore, but that’s OK, because we believe there’s always room for professional development and growth…


With leadership, humanity comes first 

It's possible that different personality types might respond differently when asked what they like and respect in a leader.  

‘Thinking’ types (those who, in Insights Discovery language, lead with Fiery Red and Cool Blue energies) may instinctively cite vision, goal-setting, and decision-making qualities as being most important to them.  

For those who lead with ‘Feeling’ colour energies (Earth Green and Sunshine Yellow), qualities relating to collaboration, the ability to nurture, and exhibit fairness and kindness will be high on the list.  

We might also have different answers 30 years after we started our careers. Perspective and experience may teach us that we don’t want or need from a leader what we once thought we did.  

But the basics of how we like to be led are unlikely to pivot dramatically. When we strip it back, we humans have some pretty basic needs at work, even if we’ve never stopped to analyse it. We all appreciate certain ‘essentials’ in our leadership mix. 


Leadership qualities we need at work

Most of us probably agree that ‘at work’, we would like: 

  • to be clear about what’s expected of us and what difference our contribution will make
  • to understand the bigger picture of why we’re doing what we do, and why that matters to the future of the organisation we’ve chosen to be part of
  • to be able to trust our leaders to protect us, and to be decisive and solve problems with conviction and with empathy, especially during times of disruption
  • to be heard: to be asked how we are, appreciated for the unique skills mix we bring and what else we might need to do the job well
  • to feel inspired to work and encouraged to do well without undue pressure, threats or conflict (if this resonates, read our take on why leadership must embrace psychological safety in the workplace here)  

Let’s dive in and explore the five top leadership skills that we think are most likely to create a motivated, fired-up team… 


Leadership quality #5 - Courage 

Leadership can be incredibly challenging. It takes courage and resilience to take calculated risks and difficult decisions with conviction, over and over again as circumstances change. It takes courage to be accountable for those decisions and their impact.  

When things don’t go to plan, it perhaps takes even more courage to admit your mistakes and adjust the course. Troubleshooting, crisis management and problem-solving are, for many (not all!) personality types, deeply uncomfortable parts of the job. But the reality is that people look to you for answers in seemingly impossible situations, and they want to trust your decisions. This includes calling out unacceptable behaviour that doesn’t sit with your organisation’s core values. 


Leadership quality #4 - Stability….with adaptability!  

No-one actively seeks a volatile, changeable, temperamental leader… 

Plenty exist, and certainly we all have bad days, but most of us prefer leaders who, even if they keep us on our toes, don’t generally make us feel on edge. A calm, stable, guiding presence is probably more conducive to getting the best from teams than inconsistency or ego-led decisions and behaviour. Not everyone’s default approach is ‘calm and considered’, of course, but it helps to have an awareness of how unsettling stressful unpredictability or impulsiveness can feel for others. 

Regardless of which colour energy they might lead with, effective leaders are able to adapt and flex under pressure without creating drama, and make allowances for inevitable changing environments and shifting goalposts with ease. Trust reappears here again as a central theme. People want to feel that you’ll act in their best interests while steering the organisation to success. 


Leadership Quality #3 - Collaboration 

This one is multi-faceted! Great collaborative skills involve active listening, strong communication skills (again), a genuine interest in relationship-building and ideally, the gift of being able to motivate and inspire others. Central to this is the ability to build trust and make yourself available to the people committed to delivering the vision alongside you.

However much of a diary challenge it may seem, people appreciate a leader’s generosity with their time and a willingness to share expertise. It pays to be a good listener to all opinions (not just the loudest), and to be able to facilitate a group discussion with equity.  

Empowering a team means creating a culture where they feel comfortable enough to come to you with ideas and offer their opinions. They may do things differently to you, so it’s important to be open to and understanding of that. The same goes for giving colleagues enough freedom and creative space to deliver in a way that suits their preferences and energy, rather than micro-managing.  

Being a good leader is also about removing barriers. If your team tells you they need something, whether it’s more time or resources, be ready to remove that barrier so they can get on with the job. 

And let’s not forget kindness and nurture. A collaborative, emotionally intelligent leader knows how to give praise, and keeps an eye on colleagues’ wellbeing. Teams want reassurance that their leader thinks about and checks on their wellbeing, makes sure they’re taking holidays and are all being treated equally. In a smaller organisation without an HR function, it could be as simple as ensuring that vital team admin is always under control, guidelines are created and followed and professional development and training is top of mind. 

Skill-spotting and skill-nurturing are key parts of the leader mix. So is the ability to assemble a team of varied talents that create and contribute to the organisational vision and purpose…and deploy tasks effectively. 


Leadership quality #2 - A well-communicated vision  

Vision, clarity and strategic direction setting is the leader’s first job, followed by finding a way to drive the team/s on the same path and encourage colleagues to actively contribute to fulfilling the shared vision. 

As the Amex UK CEO, Hannah Lewis, said in a recent Raconteur interview, it’s important to “set direction and give a really clear view on where you’re trying to take it. You have to be able to communicate that vision.” 

This last comment is important. A leader can have a great vision, but without strong communication skills, it won’t be easy to share what success looks like.

Using a mix of approaches to suit different kinds of listener, a good leader takes time to make sure that the organisation’s ambition is something that everyone can understand and relate to. Being sure to create, share and live by declared organisational values is a key part of this. 


Top Leadership quality - Self-Awareness 

Without well-developed emotional Intelligence, strong self-awareness and a good handle on ‘other-awareness’, a leader is less likely to motivate their followers. This is why self-awareness ranks as the number one leadership skill.  

Understanding yourself, your values, patterns, biases and impact on others is the most important, and most underestimated, part of the leadership mix. 

It’s precisely why our four-colour model, Insights Discovery, exists: to help us understand ourselves and others, and how we react uniquely to certain people, situations and challenges.   

Perhaps the less talked-about skill that goes hand-in-hand self-awareness is ‘other-awareness’: awareness of the strengths, challenges, hopes, fears, and dreams of those around you. Both sides of this awareness coin, self- and other-awareness, are equally important to leadership success.   

Other-awareness means listening to your colleagues with genuine curiosity and without expectations, judgements or assumptions. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. 

It’s also about being aware of what other people value. Depending on which of the four colour emerges they lead with, your colleagues may have strong attachments to certain aspects of how to do their job well, and to what they subconsciously expect from others. Where one colleague might particularly value accuracy, thoroughness and data, another may place speed, swift progression, and defined action plans above all else. Some colleagues might place huge emphasis on involving others and brainstorming new ways of working, where others may rate nurturing and helping others, making sure all activity is purpose-led. 

Being able to see and value the differences among team members, and encouraging them to do the same, is an essential quality of a successful leader.  

Finally, and perhaps just as desirable as all the skills and qualities above, most of us respond well to infectious energy and a sense of purpose in their leaders. We know that not every boss will have oodles of charisma and charm or lead with extraverted energy, but actively projecting continued enthusiasm for a shared vision (and the values needed to deliver it) goes a long way to keeping everyone fired up for success.