McKinsey: Top 4 leadership traits for business success

17 February 2015

The traits being ‘supportive’ and ‘results orientated’, as well as able to ‘see different perspectives’ and to ‘solve problems’ show high correlation with strong and effective leadership, a recently released report by McKinsey & Company finds. According to the firm, organisations planning to invest in leadership development should prioritise these four traits.

Leadership ability is central to performance of an organisation, or as McKinsey & Company puts it: “Telling CEOs these days, that leadership drives performance is a bit like saying that oxygen is necessary to breathe.” That organisations need good leaders is commonly expressed and 90% of CEOs report to be seeking to invest more in the development of leaders in light of their importance to the profitable performance of the whole. What the expression of a good leader looks like, however, is hard to divine. Some wonder whether there is just one type or that it is situation specific. Yet while considerable resources are being expended on leadership programmes, each with their own interpretation of what makes a good leader, only 43% of CEOs are confident in the success of these programmes.

McKinsey & Company

In recent research report, titled “Decoding leadership: What really matters”, the consulting firm seeks a basic generalisation on what makes for good leadership. The firm created a basic set of 20 leadership traits from relevant academic sources and their own expertise. To identify the basic features of leadership competencies on the ground in reference to their categories, McKinsey set about surveying 189,000 individuals at 81 organisations. To match the kind of behaviour that is exemplary within their categories, they identified top percentile organisations in which leadership is seen as strong according to “leadership effectiveness as measured by McKinsey’s Organisational Health Index” and compared them to low percentile performers.

The results of their research show that of the 20 traits, four show high correlation with strong leadership, with “these 4, indeed, explained 89% of the variance between strong and weak organisations in terms of leadership effectiveness.”

Top kinds of leadership behaviour

Supporting others – By being authentically interested in their subordinates, leaders are able to build trust, inspire, and engage their colleagues toward meeting ‘challenges’. Intervening in socially permissible ways to improve efficiency, while allaying unwarranted fears from unknowns and channelling the energy of employees away from conflicts and towards relevant goals.

Results orientated – The act of leading is not only to develop and communicate vision and set objectives, but also requires the ability to inspire and support their implementation. These leaders are strong on getting results, tend to emphasises efficiency and productivity while focused on bringing about high-value work.

Seeing different perspectives – This capacity allows leaders to monitor the environment in which an organisation is operating, grasping relevant trends, while encouraging employees to generate and contribute their ideas to improve performance, and differentiate what is and is not important. These leaders base their decisions on sound analysis.

Problem solving – This competency refers to the ability to gather relevant information, analyse it for relevant trends and consider the most valuable next move. This skill or intuitive capacity, which is difficult to get right, is a key factor in a range of decisions, from M&A to everyday team building.

While the authors neither make the claim that these four traits are definitive of leadership, nor that context doesn’t change the kinds of competencies required, the generalisation, McKinsey claims, does give a basic set of “core leadership behaviour that will be relevant to most companies today, notably on the front line. For organisations investing in the development of their future leaders, prioritising these four areas is a good place to start.”