HR & Management

These five characteristics make a successful business leader. Do you have them?

6 min read

14 October 2015

Defining success is difficult to do. But these five characteristics paint the picture of a successful business leader. Do you recognise yourself?

What will determine how successful you will be if you opt for a career in the corporate sector? What do employers really want from their new employees? And how do recruiters assess the potential to grow in the organisation?

Much research has been carried out in relation to these questions, resulting in long list of desirable characteristics, which obviously vary depending on the sector. 

My list below is a simplified summary, primarily based on listening to a range of employers over the years, who shared with me what they look for when hiring and, importantly, what transforms employees into high-fliers.

1) Knowledge and skills

To enter an organisation at mid-level, employers expect basic knowledge and skills in the relevant area of work. If you are too reliant on theory, employers are unlikely to be impressed. They expect you to have a good grasp of the basic skills needed and the ability to develop swiftly on the job. 

Often the fundamental knowledge will come from your college education, with enhanced skills coming from voluntary work, industry placements, studying abroad, involvement with student unions, sports and other extracurricular activities.

2) People skills

To progress to middle and senior management levels the most important skills you need to demonstrate are people skills: the ability to work efficiently as part of a team; to have sensitivity, understanding and cultural awareness; and the ability to communicate well in a variety of situations, and with different audiences. 

It is primarily your social aptitude, rather than just your subject knowledge, that will allow you to progress in your career.

3) Smartness

The harsh reality is that you will quickly hit a ceiling in most corporate organisations if you are not particularly bright; however, the good news is that it doesn’t necessarily require academic excellence (unless of course you wish to opt for an academic career). 

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Although there is no direct correlation between academic high-fliers and high achievers, your time in education give employers indication that you are smart and, therefore, a good learner.

4) Entrepreneurial attitude

In order to reach the top of an organisation – especially of a commercial organisation – your main trump cards are your commercial acumen and, more broadly, your entrepreneurial attitude. 

You need to know how to take carefully calculated and considered risks, as well as how to manage those risks. You also need to be able to push the boundaries and achieve results by enabling your senior team members. 

You won’t reach the top of an organisation simply because your ego wants you there, but because you are keen to take that organisation to new levels of success and for a lasting success you must understand the importance of sharing achievements with those around you.

5) Creativity

What really sets great leaders apart is creativity; those who are capable to think completely outside of the box, happy to sail unchartered waters, open to the untested. Top leaders of today are movers and shakers – they cause disruption in the market, set trends, and make history. 

The buzz word is innovation, which is a focused form of creativity. Top leaders combine self-confidence with creativity and know how to unleash creativity across an organisation in a result-orientated way.

This list is seriously demanding, but of course not everyone is expected to (nor will want to) reach the very top. It requires hard work and a lot of sacrifices, not unlike aiming for Olympic gold. What is interesting is that the various requirements for a high-flying career can be presented in a cumulative way.

Being creative will, in itself, not get you to the top of the corporate ladder. If creativity is your dominating strength you are likely to be happy pursuing an artistic career. There is more to a fulfilling life than pursuing a corporate career!

Being entrepreneurial will not, in itself, ensure a promising corporate career either. In fact, when you have very strong entrepreneurial traits it is more likely that you will feel the itch to set up on your own business, rather than survive and thrive in a complex organisation.

But should you take the corporate route, the ability to draw on these gifts, skills, attitudes, and talents over the years will help you scale the slippery slopes of a corporate career, and possibly even reach the dizzying heights of the very top.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is rector and chief executive at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), and chief academic officer at Global University Systems (GUS).