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3 Characteristics All Good Leaders Have In Common

What are the characteristics of a good leader? WashU Olin Business School might have the answer


Thu Dec 12 2019

How do you become a great leader? High-performing individuals seek the answer, whether they’re startup CEOs looking to guide a company to greatness or politicians trying to make a difference.

For the answer, it makes sense to look for the qualities great leaders have in common and to emulate them. This is, after all, the basis of business education—but finding the winning formula is easier said than done.

At Washington University of St. Louis’s Olin Business School, faculty think they’ve found the formula, and the school believes it’s found some answers to the question of what makes a leader great.

Their journey to these answers started in 1914.

“Good private business is also good public business”

90e152111166e12b8ab77445c385e3e8337ee4f4.jpg  © WashU Olin Business School | An image of Gephart's original memo

Three years before the business school at WashU was founded in 1917, the school’s future dean, William F Gephart, wrote a memo to the university’s chancellor.

In it, he said businesspeople “must not only see the numerous and seemingly conflicting facts, but must be able to analyze them.”

He also went on to say that leaders have a duty to “set an example of good private business that is also good public business”—putting forward the notion of corporate social responsibility long before ‘CSR’ became a business buzzword.

This idea is at the heart of Olin’s teaching, and its vision for how companies can embody values-based, data-driven leadership. But how does this manifest in real business leaders? 

Below are three traits they've identified. Let’s start with values.

Characteristic number 1: They articulate a higher purpose

Not only does being socially responsible make for a better managed business, but it can also boost profits, as values-based brands can increase customer loyalty, improve employee retention, and make their business more attractive to investors.

In fact, nearly 80% of Americans say they’re more likely to be loyal to values-based brands, according to a study from public relations firm Cone/Porter Novelli in 2018. But this isn’t just about window dressing: values make a big difference to employees as well as customers.

“If you want to hire the best and brightest, an organization that has articulated a higher purpose really can make a difference,” states Stuart Bunderson, director of Olin’s Bauer Leadership Center. 

“People are more committed if there is an attraction beyond just a salary.”

2: They use data to drive decision-making

Adhering to a set of values is not enough to build business success, however. Data can be critical, especially in today’s technological society.

Take a leaf from sports: recently, Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, has been using data analysis to improve the play of his team, and it’s working. Thanks to statistical analysis, Morey has changed the way the team plays, resulting in more efficient shots and more points.

Yet the Rockets’ mission statement makes clear that management isn’t only based on data, but on values, too.

“We are One Team,” it says, “committed to creating championship-caliber experiences for our fans, our partners, and our employees both on the court and throughout the Houston community.”

This is a great example of the kind of leadership that faculty at Olin teach their students, because it uses data—in this case, literal technological data—to drive progress toward a values-based goal.

“If leaders only attend to the data, they’ll make decisions that ignore key individual, organizational or societal priorities,” says Bunderson from Olin. “If leaders only attend to values, they’ll make decisions that don’t fully consider business constraints and opportunities. You need both.”

3: They’re critical thinkers

The final element of great leadership that Olin faculty highlight is critical thinking: the ability to work out the values at play and identify the data points required to drive success.

In the first year of the MBA program at Olin, students take a class entitled ‘Values-Based, Data-Driven Decision-Making,’ which Bunderson says aims to “imprint students with an identity as values-based, data-driven decision-makers.”

The course comes before students jet off on their global immersion program to Barcelona, Beijing, and Shanghai, and for MBA student Hannah Levin, it was a truly eye-opening experience.

“It gave us the opportunity to challenge one another to think critically about our actions,” she confirms. “This carried through our coursework and conversations for the rest of the summer.”

According to Bunderson, this ability to think critically is a huge part of what makes leaders great.

“What we are trying to do at Olin, in addition to simply teaching people to be rigorous in their thinking, is inviting them to step back and ask themselves: What values are at play here?” he says.

If students can do that, they can start using the data in front of them to drive toward a meaningful goal. That, in the eyes of the Olin faculty, is the definition of great leadership.

BB Insights examines the latest news and trends from the business world, drawing on the expertise of leading faculty members at the world's best business schools.