Qualities of true leadership

Published by Newman University on

Traumatic and disastrous events over the past two years such as the Covid-19 Pandemic and death of George Floyd have again highlighted injustice across the world. The continuing need for good leaders who can challenge the status quo, bring positive change and deliver social justice is evident. This short piece considers some of the key attributes necessary for good leadership.

van Zwanenberg (2003, p1) highlights that

Our common image of leaders and leadership is that of the ‘hero leader’, who can overcome every crisis through extraordinary actions, awe inspiring charisma, excellent communications and a certainty of belief in what is right.

There is little doubt that these are important attributes. Indeed, we have seen and experienced leaders that have at times demonstrated such characteristics at times of crises. However, true leadership also requires qualities and skills that go beyond overcoming crises, to address long term issues and forward thinking to avoid potential disasters.

To develop a deeper understanding of what it takes to be a good leader, it is helpful to consider some of qualities of truly inspirational leaders.  Three such leaders that I have admired throughout my life are Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. Whilst all three are regularly quoted, it is important to consider some of their qualities that enabled them to not only bring about positive change but also to stand the test of time and remain inspirational leaders even after their deaths.

Parks, Mandela nor Gandhi sought power or leadership, indeed they were all humble individuals. Their true commitment was to challenge oppression, inequality and injustice as well as a belief in social justice and doing what was right. Significantly, none of them were or even claimed to be perfect. Instead they were able to reflect and learn from their mistakes. Their methods of communication did not include the need to raise their voices, talk over others or to be the centre of attention. Instead they demonstrated their strength of character through their persistence, commitment to truth and honesty as well as grit and determination. Their gentleness combined with their ability to effectively communicate their messages to masses of people and even disarm enemies with a smile or a gentle word were exceptional.

In the face of adversity, injustice, incarceration and even violence, when the need for revenge could have dominated, they stood against violence. They were visionary, full of hope, able to see the big picture, think positively, and committed to doing what was right even if it meant challenging even those closest to them. They demonstrated extraordinary levels of compassion and forgiveness, whilst having a clear plan for the future thus avoiding violence, bloodshed and bringing peaceful change.

Given some of the current challenges across the globe, there is a need for leaders with these types of qualities. While it may be assumed only a few are born with such qualities and thus they are rare, it is important to remember that such skills can be developed over time, through reflection, openness to constructive criticism and a commitment to lifelong learning. Indeed, education and the development of free and critical thinking are key to challenging accepted norms to bring about positive change, innovation and eradicate poverty.
Dr Mohammed Jakhara
Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Society and Professional Studies


van Zwanenberg, Z (2003) Modern leadership for modern services. Alloa: Scottish Leadership Foundation.


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