· 2 min read · Features

That tricky grey area: what sets great leaders apart?


Common traits include the ability to set out a plan, harness information gathered through data and develop a strategy

I've made my name and been successful in the world of golf, but I have drawn on insights from a range of sports. For example, the English Premiership Soccer League gives a fascinating insight into the melting pot of sport, business and leadership.

A study of the different leadership styles and personalities at each club highlights some interesting questions. In particular: why are the most successful managers generally those who had relatively undistinguished careers as players? Surely elite performance gives you a good understanding of what you need to model as a leader?

In business, as in sport, leadership is a very wide-ranging and complex topic. Common traits of the greatest leaders include the ability to:

  • Set out a plan – a roadmap for success based on the goals or objectives of the company or team
  • Harness information gathered through data, experience, and an understanding of the talent at your disposal
  • Develop a strategy. The organisation is only successful when it is pulling together in one clear and continuous direction

But not all leaders behave the same way. Great leaders have shown that when the road becomes bumpy they come into their own. Tweaking and adjusting strategy while always adhering to the core objectives is one grey area of leadership that sets the great ones apart.

Exceptional individual players have trained and programmed themselves to be individuals within the team, driven to success while simultaneously distancing themselves from others who are not as driven or talented. In business, as in sport, this can create a disconnect that doesn’t translate well into leadership, where a connection with those you are leading is essential. Business is done is through people, so the ability to harness and leverage collective talent is crucial.

Communication of your strategy cannot easily be wrapped up and delivered generically to all. Teams are made up of different characters, genders, cultural differences and personality traits. Great leaders understand this and act accordingly on an individual basis or through tiers of management.

Your team will only be as good as the direction they receive, but you also need to be able to communicate with individuals in a way that gives energy, focus and relevance to each member of the team.

Teamwork is about individuals working in service of a common goal. Knowing your team individually and communicating to them based on their own personality characteristics is vital to success because it helps each member of the team to identify the unique contribution he or she can make.

But it’s easier said than done. You have to feel it, sense the situation, sense the personalities, and communicate individually and collectively.

Every contribution is vital for the team’s success and your team needs to feel that.

Paul McGinley is executive fellow of London Business School’s Leadership Institute