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Recent world events have highlighted leadership in a variety of ways. For some, it has been an opportunity to excel by applying the right characteristics at the right time and in the right way. Others have been less successful in how their leadership has been perceived.

What does being an effective leader mean?

To begin answering this, we searched Google with the question “What are the characteristics of an effective leader?” We reviewed a series of thought pieces, blogs and development tools from any discipline. In no specific order, we then selected keywords from these sources, which we believed will help us answer our question. These words included: brave, calm, charismatic, compassionate, determined, emotional, experienced, fair, humorous, initiative, intelligent, kind, moral, pragmatic, professional, rapport, reliable responsive, risk- taker, smart, strategist, strong, thoughtful, transformational, unassuming, understanding, and well mannered.

Further descriptions and quotes of what is meant by ‘leadership’

We reviewed the Oxford English Dictionary for the word “Leader” and found a variety of descriptions which included:

  • “One who guides others in action or opinion; one who takes the lead in any business, enterprise, or movement; one who is ‘followed’ by disciples or adherents; the chief of a sect or party.

We then reviewed some quotes on leadership from our own experience. In no specific order, we highlighted the following:

  • ‘An interaction between two or more members of a group that often involves a structuring or restructuring of the situation and the perceptions and expectations of members.” – Bass and Stogdill’s handbook of leadership: Theory, research and managerial applications – 1990)
  • ‘Leaders play an essential role in every aspect of our modern lives and good leadership is an art that is highly prized. Effective leaders not only control, appraise and analyse, they also encourage, improve and inspire”. – Adair J. Effective Leadership: How To Be a Successful Leader. Pan Macmillan; 2011 Feb 28.
  • ‘Leading happening between people. It is not the property of the leaders or followers. Leaders lead when they connect with others in ways that help them seize opportunities or tackle problems they otherwise could not address’ – Binney G, Williams C, Wilke G. Living leadership: a practical guide for ordinary heroes. Pearson UK; 2012 Dec 14.
  • “Anyone who takes responsibility for recognizing the potential in people and ideas, and has the courage to develop that potential.” Brown B. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. 2018 Oct 9.

To summarize

Effective leadership means different things to different people in different contexts. As mentioned above, the current pandemic has provided many with an opportunity to lead in different ways. These ways are likely to vary.

We would be very interested in your thoughts on what does effective leadership mean to you right now?

Please do post your responses below – many thanks.


Sean Heneghan is a Chartered Organisational Psychologist and Senior Tutor at the University of Oxford.

Kamal R. Mahtani is an NHS GP, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, and Director of the MSc in EBHC Systematic Reviews.
Both authors lead the University of Oxford Evidence-Based Healthcare Leadership Programme.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary represent the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the host institution, the NHS, the NIHR, or the Department of Health and Social Care. The views are not a substitute for professional medical advice.

Competing interests: None declared