The leadership behaviours I look for

When interviewing or developing a leader, I have a set of preferred behaviours, methods and values I look for. Getting this list came after a few mistakes.


I've occasionally blogged about how I seek both clarity and root cause as part of my method of getting things done. I'm a self-taught Lean practitioner and systems-thinker. I love a well-defined problem statement. For years I have held these methods in my mind. I search for evidence of them when interviewing and coach my teams in them. For example, I might ask how does a leader actively avoid subconscious bias within their team?

During interviews or in coaching, I also ask a leader what their core values are. I wrote about why values are really important over here.

This month, in a face-palm moment I realised I'd not written all of this down, except for keeping private notes about my personal values. The trigger was when I was reflecting on some hiring mistakes I'd made in the past. I thought about what I hadn't looked for or which standards I had been forgiving of, that lead to the hire not working out. I realised that because I didn't have a checklist, my interviews were relying too much on instinct.

Not wanting to repeat mistakes, I checked prior blog posts, journal notes, cross-referenced my favourite leadership models (Lencioni's five and Google's Aristotle), and referred to my personal values, to come up with this list.

So, here is the checklist of leadership behaviours I now look for, provided in a loose order of importance.


Being of service to your customer is the whole point. Knowing what's valuable to a customer lets you create value that matters. Being customer-centric is the right perspective, which should go without saying.
I worked at Rackspace where this core value was called "Fanatical Support" and at SoftwareONE where it was "customer focused". An exemplar business executing on this value is Amazon, who call it Customer Obsessed.

Builds teams


Builds an environment where it's safe for people to admit mistakes, admit they don't know how to define or solve a problem, and where it's safe to make themselves vulnerable. Building a psychologically safe environment is one of the five pillars that Project Aristotle identified, and the other four are also included in my list.

Earns trust

Earns trust from people. Gives trust and verifies. Gives autonomy and empowerment, and devises a way to monitor. See research on how trust creates value. I wrote a little on trust here, too.

Creates meaning

A senior leader must create vision. A line manager should create meaning. The organisation's work should be doing something that matters to customers. Works needs to have meaning. Changes which need to be communicated should be given meaning.


Listens deeply and carefully. Ensures others have a voice. Seeks first to understand. Listening is a posture to take and requires restraint from talking. Read this. Takes good notes, which reflect the agreements, decisions or actions agreed.

Thinks clearly

Distinguishes beliefs from facts

Distinguishes observable data from the conclusions drawn from them. Can describe these differences when discussing how they went about analysing a situation.

Aware of mental models

Is aware of their own mental models, and actively tries to improve the clarity with which they see the world. Actively works to surface unconscious bias and any other cognitive bias.
I do not mean mental tools like Pareto's 80/20. What I mean are mental models as defined by Peter Senge in the Fifth Discipline, which is "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action".

Skilful at problem statements

Is skilful and unrelenting in defining problem statements. Knows that is where to start with any attempt to change a situation. Is a systems-thinker. Knows when enough analysis has been done to start acting without unintended consequences. Distinguishes type 1 and 2 decisions (Bezos 2015).

Is a leader

Takes ownership

Owns a problem they've identified. Manages dependencies so they can deliver expected results. Shows ownership and finishes what they start. If ownership is absent, looks to clarify ownership.

Clear on responsibilities

is clear on the responsibilities their staff hold, and holds them to account to deliver against them. Helps their staff discharge their responsibilities but doesn't do the job for them, nor allow them to fail where the matter is one of safety or mission. Helps staff to be self-sufficient next time. Coaches, doesn't tell.

Manages expectations

Makes their expectations clear, such as the quality desired, timeliness expected, responsibilites to be fulfilled and ownership. Adobe have open sourced their simple, effective, guide to having check-ins about expectations and performance.

Gets things done

Is dependable. Fulfils their commitments. Manages others expectations in this regard, and is acutely aware of and deliberate about any expectations they set with others, particularly customers.
McKinsey identified 'having a strong results orientation' as a key determinant of manager success, along with three other factors also included in my list.


Wants to deliver quality work to the customer. Wants to be proud of the work they do. Holds high standards in those areas which contribute to customer value and quality.


Cares about and pays attention to detail. Establishes whether staff do the same, and expects them to. Goes deep. Doesn't let this behaviour override the principles of empowerment, trust and verify nor of setting responsibilities.


Is well-read and is continuously learning. Technically curious about how things work. I like if someone has a social media presence which shows evidence of this behaviour.


There are some qualities which can't be taught, and which a candidate simply needs to have. They're table stakes:

  • Integrity / honesty,
  • emotional intelligence / self-awareness,
  • empathy/humanity,
  • resilience / drive / hunger / work ethic,
  • humility (for leaders, more so than individuals).

Michael Hyatt and Dan Ross wrote some detail about these.

Loren Padelford's list adds a few more to the above. On top of intelligence and work ethic, he also looks for:

  • History of success,
  • Creativity,
  • Entrepreneurial,
  • Competitiveness.

Change log

I'll refine this list over time, particularly after I cross-check it against the best management research I've curated and added a few more source links.

Updated June 1: added 'table stakes' section.
Original: May 26th, 2018.

Photo by Roger Steinbacher on Unsplash