What Are the World’s Most Admired Leadership Traits?

By Bill Leonard May 19, 2015
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ORLANDO, Fla.—What started out as a mere training session for Pris Nelson and Ed Cohen has turned into substantive, ongoing research about the true nature of business leadership. Nelson and Cohen are the co-founders of Nelson Cohen Global Consulting, and they presented their findings on leadership traits May 18 at the Association for Talent Development 2015 International Conference & Exposition.

Two years ago, the two training and development consultants started a training session by asking participants—dentists and dental hygienists from 14 countries—to list the leadership traits they admired the most. According to Cohen, the discussion became so compelling that the next day, the session was packed with nearly twice as many participants.

“So Pris and I wondered what happened and where all the people came from, because there suddenly wasn’t any more space in the meeting room,” Cohen recalled. “We found out the people at the first day’s session were so intrigued that they had called friends and colleagues and invited them to come and join the discussion.”

Nelson and Cohen welcomed the new participants and asked them the same question. They also realized they had hit on something, and they began polling other business professionals about what leadership characteristics they admire the most—and what traits will be needed to succeed in the future.

They have now gathered input from more than 2,800 business professionals from 122 countries and four generations. From those responses, Nelson and Cohen have identified the following top five most admired global leadership traits:

  • Courage.
  • Ability to be forward-thinking.
  • Honesty.
  • Ability to inspire.
  • Intelligence.
The four generations participating in the research were Industrials, also known as Traditionals or the Silent Generation (born before 1946); Baby Boomers (born 1946-64); Generation X (born 1965-82); and Millennials (born after 1982). Among the three older generations, the most admired traits were fairly consistent, with slight variations among the age groups, and ranked in different orders.

The big difference in the admired traits was found among the Millennial study participants: Millennials ranked the traits of ambition and determination among the top five, while the other generations didn’t. The millennial respondents did not list honesty and courage among the top five admired leadership traits.

Cohen and Nelson said this is significant because within five years, Millennials are set to become the most dominant generational group in the workplace, while the corporate world faces a tremendous leadership gap as thousands of Baby Boomers retire each day. By 2020, U.S. Census statistics show, 22 million Baby Boomers will have reached age 65, and that number will grow to nearly 70 million by 2028.

“So it’s clear that Millennials and their perceptions of what leadership should be now and in the future will have a tremendous impact on how businesses prepare and develop their leaders,” Nelson said.

Technology will reshape leadership development processes, according to Cohen. He pointed to the impact that Millennials (whom many call digital natives, because they grew up in the age of computers and the Internet) are having on the workplace.

“But you haven’t seen anything yet. Just wait until Generation Z [born during or after the late 1990s] enters the workplace,” Cohen added. “I believe this will be a game changer. They are social media natives and grew up with voices of equality on the Internet, where they can have the same reach and same voice on social media platforms that CEOs and political leaders have.”

Cohen and Nelson asked the audience to brainstorm what businesses can do now to ensure that future leaders possess the traits workers admire in their leadership, and that these future leaders can be identified. The audience suggestions included:

  • Emphasize that it is the responsibility of people in lower-level leadership positions and those in the human resource function to identify potential leaders and encourage them to further develop those talents.
  • Ensure that managers and leaders at all levels are aware of the mindsets of different generations and cultures.
  • Train employees to develop the leadership traits and behaviors that align with the corporate culture.
Cohen told the audience that the discussion and research on leadership traits is ongoing, and he believes perceptions and definitions of what truly defines good business leadership will continue to change and evolve.

“We are always looking to learn more, and right now, I think we’ve just touched the surface of what leadership traits are exactly and how these traits can help leaders and their businesses succeed.”

Bill Leonard is an online/writer editor for SHRM.
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