What are the top leadership competencies?

Research findings based on leaders in 15 countries.

Top competencies may be easy to identify, but much harder to nurture and develop because of how the human brain is hard-wired.

Organisational scientist and leadership coach Dr Sunnie Giles asked 195 leaders working in 30 global organisations to choose their top 15 leadership competencies from a pick list of 74.

The competencies were then grouped into five key themes:

  • Connection and belonging
  • Efficient learning
  • Nurtures growth
  • Self-organising
  • Strong ethics and safety

Whilst many of the competencies identified are not surprising, developing them might not be simple.  The research also sets out to find out how neuroscience can inform behavioural change.

Connection and belonging

Humans are social creatures, and the urge to connect and belong is very strong. Research shows that emotions in the workplace are contagious and that a sense of connection can have a positive impact on productivity and emotional well-being in the workplace.  Leadership competencies that fall into this key theme include:

  • Communicate often and openly
  • Create a feeling of succeeding and failing together as a pack

Efficient learning

Leaders are open to new ideas, encourage organisational learning and are not afraid to admit mistakes. They also encourage and nurture this approach in others.  Key competencies include:

  • Flexibility to change opinions
  • Openness to new ideas
  • Provides a safe environment for trial and error

Nurtures growth in others

Managing through fear generates stress, whereas the use of appreciation helps motivate employees to reciprocate.  Leadership qualities that support growth include demonstrating a commitment to the ongoing development of others.


The competencies that fall within this grouping include the ability to set out goals and objectives to others while allowing them the flexibility to organise and control their own work.  This can be a challenge for many leaders – the fear of relinquishing power can be very strong.  Research proves that empowered teams are more productive, have higher levels of job satisfaction are more committed to their team/organisation.

Strong ethics and a sense of safety

Great leaders nurture a safe and trusting environment.  They instil confidence in their employees and are demonstrably committed to fairness.  Key competencies include:

  • High ethical and moral standards
  • Communicating clear expectations

You can read about the research on Harvard Business Review.