Decoding Leadership: What Really Matters

New research suggests that the secret to developing effective leaders is to encourage four types of behavior

Telling organization leaders these days that leadership drives performance is a bit like saying that oxygen is necessary to breathe. Over 90 percent of those in business and public enterprises are already planning to increase leadership development because they see it as the single most important human-capital issue their organizations face. And they’re right to do so: McKinsey Consultancy research has consistently shown that good leadership is a critical part of organizational health, which is an important driver of high performing businesses and government agencies.

A big, unresolved issue, however, is what sort of leadership behavior organizations should encourage. Is leadership so contextual that it defies standard definitions or development approaches? Should organizations now concentrate their efforts on priorities such as role modeling, making decisions quickly, defining visions, and shaping leaders who are good at adapting? Should they stress the virtues of enthusiastic communication? In the absence of any academic or practitioner consensus on the answers, leadership-development programs address an extraordinary range of issues, which may help explain why only 43 percent of those at the top of private and public enterprises are confident that their training investments will bear fruit.

Our most recent research, however, suggests that a small subset of leadership skills closely correlates with leadership success, particularly among budding leaders. Using our own practical experience and searching the relevant academic literature, we came up with a comprehensive list of 20 distinct leadership traits.

  1. Champion desired change
  2. Develop and share a collective mission
  3. Solve problems effectively
  4. Clarify objectives, rewards and consequences
  5. Communicate prolifically and enthusiastically
  6. Develop others
  7. Operate with strong results orientation
  8. Differentiate among followers
  9. Facilitate group collaboration
  10. Foster mutual respect
  11. Give praise
  12. Keep group organized and on task
  13. Make quality decisions
  14. Motivate and bring out the best in others
  15. Offer a critical perspective
  16. Recover positively from failures
  17. Remain composed and confident in uncertainty
  18. Be supportive
  19. Be a role model for organizational values
  20. Seek different perspectives.

Next, we surveyed 189,000 people in 81 diverse organizations around the world to assess how frequently certain kinds of leadership behavior are applied within their organizations. Finally, we divided the sample into organizations whose leadership performance was strong (the top quartile of leadership effectiveness as measured by McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index) and those that were weak (bottom quartile).

What we found was that leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams typically displayed 4 of the 20 possible types of behavior; these 4, indeed, explained 89 percent of the variance between strong and weak organizations in terms of leadership effectiveness.

Four Behaviors of High-Performing Leaders

  1. Solving problems effectively. The process that precedes decision making is problem solving when information is gathered, analyzed, and considered. This is deceptively difficult to get right, yet it is a key input into decision making for major issues (such as new programs and projects) as well as daily ones (such as how to handle a team dispute).
  2. Operating with a strong results orientation. Leadership is about not only developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work.
  3. Seeking different perspectives. This trait is conspicuous in those leaders who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues, and give the
    appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns. Leaders who do well on this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone.
  4. Supporting others. Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel (empathy skills). By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.

We’re not saying that the centuries-old debate about what distinguishes great leaders is over or that context is unimportant. Experience shows that different organizational situations often require different styles of leadership. We do believe, however, that our research points to a kind of core leadership behavior that will be relevant to most public and private enterprises today and tomorrow. For organizations investing in the development of their future leaders, prioritizing these four areas is a good place to start.

About the Authors
Claudio Feser is a director in McKinsey’s Zürich office, Fernanda Mayol is an associate principal in the Rio de Janeiro office, and Ramesh Srinivasan is a director in the New York office.