7 key leadership behaviors you must have

April 5, 2021 - 19 min read

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What does the research say about leadership behaviors?

1. Be grounded in ethics and integrity

2. Encourage innovation

3. Manage with compassion

4. Adapt quickly to change

5. Embrace a coaching mindset

6. Practice effective listening

7. Cultivate an inspiring vision


Throughout my management experience, it quickly became apparent that every move I made affected my team. If we lack compassion, our teams suffer. If we don’t listen, our teams suffer. And if we struggle with stress and emotional wellness, our teams struggle, too. 

So, we have to start working on ourselves. We have to ask important questions, like, what’s the difference between a manager and a leader? A leader and a great leader? Poor leadership and servant leadership?

In this article, we’ll cover the research behind leadership behaviors and the top 7 leadership behaviors leaders must have.

What does the research say about leadership behaviors?

In his groundbreaking book, Conscious Business, Fred Kofman writes, “Asking whether someone is a manager or a leader is like asking whether someone is a soccer player or a ball-kicker.” 

By this token, leadership is the way that good managers earn the trust of their team.

Research has shown that there are a number of key leadership behaviors that managers can learn and develop. 

These behaviors are grounded in managing our social-emotional reactions to our surroundings. And by cultivating them, leaders can build a team around them that is accountable, trusting, resilient, proactive, and passionate about their work and company mission.

If you want to be this type of leader (and cultivate this type of transformational leadership in your organization), here are the 7 leadership traits our research has shown can have the biggest impact on your team’s productivity and engagement, and ways to practice them on a daily basis.

1. Be grounded in ethics and integrity

"The real threat to business is from within, from poor ethical standards and lack of integrity.” -Azim Premji

Ethical leaders are deeply committed to doing the right thing, regardless of whether or not it’s the popular choice. 

They stand by a strong code of ethics and principles that guide their mindset, choices, and behaviors. They expect their teams to do the same. 

They don’t support ethical violations (even when doing so could benefit the business), and they’re not afraid to apologize when they make mistakes.

Ethical leadership highly contributes to emotional well-being, a positive company culture, and creates a diverse and inclusive workplace. It improves brand image, prevents scandals, reduces turnover, and inspires employee resilience.

resilience associated with more effective leadership styles

Practice this:

  • Define and align your values — for example, ‘all team members will be treated with respect regardless of gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation.’
  • Hire people who share the same values. Having different experiences and perspectives is important, but it’s also important to establish some kind of common ground.
  • Create a vision statement that aligns with your values. Discuss it often, display it around the office, and pin it to your remote work accounts for virtual teams.
  • Model ethical leadership and praise team members who do the same.
  • Promote transparent and honest communication, ask for feedback, and practice active listening. 
  • Research admirable, ethical leaders and mimic their leadership style.

Practice self-care, emotional intelligence, and keep an eye on your stress levels. Fill your cup up first, so you can fill up your team’s. Stressed leaders are less likely to set a high standard for moral and ethical behavior.

2. Encourage innovation

Just like the video store Blockbuster vanished due to lack of innovation, teams that lack innovation are eventually wiped up by teams who are willing to grow (i.e., Netflix). 

A good leader is fueled by a growth mindset — a deep desire to encourage all team members to contribute their creative ideas. 

Innovative leaders encourage ‘possibility thinking’ and resist the urge to dismiss new ideas. 

This tactic is often successful, as innovators are 10% more profitable than non-innovators. 

Practice this:

  • Prioritize psychological safety. When team members don’t feel safe, they’re less willing to share new ideas, ask questions, voice concerns, or engage in constructive debates.
  • Celebrate diverse perspectives. Company cultures that value diverse perspectives, achieve broader innovation, make better decisions, and advance underrepresented groups. 

developing inclusive leaders

  • Promote a resilient workforce — resilient workers are the most innovative, with 22% higher innovation than their peers, 19% higher cognitive flexibility, and 18% higher team creativity. 

Make room for innovation. Allocate a certain number of hours each week for experimenting, solving problems, and brainstorming new ideas. Provide innovation training and accept failure as part of the learning process.

3. Manage with compassion

While many leadership experts will tell you that empathy is critical to being a successful leader, it’s actually compassion — an “objective form of empathy” — that’s key to being more in touch with your team. 

Practicing compassion comes down to training yourself to see situations from another person’s perspective. Compassionate management involves taking the time to consider and understand people’s stresses so you can be better equipped to take action. 

Unlike empathy, compassion creates emotional distance, giving leaders the ability to proactively assist another person. Being a compassionate leader can decrease team member stress levels and, in turn, increase productivity and effectiveness.

Compassionate management involves taking the time to consider and understand people’s stresses, so you can be better equipped to take action.

Compassionate leadership means showing genuine interest in team members’ success and well-being and a commitment to understanding, but not necessarily agreeing. As you practice this skill, you’ll find that you’ll be able to develop more loyalty and trust with team members.

While raises and promotions are valuable, research has shown that it’s the positive relationships we develop at work that have a greater impact on retention.

Practice this:

  • Start meetings with your team by checking in with their emotional well-being: Are they stressed? Feeling overworked? Distracted by something going on at home?
  • Take a step back and check in with yourself: Are you feeling frustrated? Angry? Reflecting on your own mental state can help improve your self-awareness and emotional control.
  • Foster transparency and be honest with people when things aren’t working out.

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4. Adapt quickly to change

Great leaders are able to quickly change course themselves and also help their team evolve with the organization’s needs.

Anne Dwane, CEO of Zinch, told First Round Review, “Adaptable people aim to do the right thing at the right time for what they want to accomplish.” 

Adaptable people also tend to surround themselves with people of a similar mindset, establishing a culture of learning and risk-taking.

leadership development dilemma

These types of leaders (much like elite athletes) tend to operate at their peak performance because they enjoy the process, continually push themselves and their teams forward, and aren’t afraid of occasionally losing. 

They recognize that leadership is a lifelong learning process, and mistakes are optimal opportunities to better ourselves and our decision-making skills.

Mistakes are optimal opportunities to better ourselves and our decision-making skills.

Practice this:

  • Establish a weekly brainstorming meeting with yourself — push yourself toward less traditional ways of thinking. 
  • Find a challenging pursuit that feels meaningful but not important enough that failure cannot be tolerated. 
  • Seek new solutions to problems as opposed to leaning on the ones you typically turn to.

5. Embrace a coaching mindset

Studies have shown that employee development results are best achieved when a manager is actively involved in the process.

Managers who are able to take a coaching approach to leadership develop a partnership with their teammates and establish a shared vision for what needs to be done and how these goals will be accomplished.

This sort of leadership style will give you a more personal and active role in each individual’s development, create a relationship of trust, and foster an environment of continual growth.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, found that the most successful individuals tend to fall into the “improving” or “growth mindset” category. Consequently, leaders who focus on developing people can influence teammates to adopt a similar mindset of constant self-improvement.

Great leaders are able to tie people’s individual development to organizational objectives, ultimately increasing accountability, improving retention, and developing stronger leaders within their teams.

Practice this:

  • Instead of praising a team member’s intelligence or talent, focus on reinforcing the processes they used.
  • When a team member makes a mistake, give feedback that enables them to grow and fix the problem.
  • Delegate in a way that develops people.
  • Take time to thoughtfully construct a developmental plan for each person on your team and review it often.
  • Offer recognition for effort.
  • Get to know team members as individuals, in the context of work and beyond, so you can coach from a Whole Person perspective.

6. Practice effective listening

Effective communication skills are key to building trust with your teammates and getting them to buy into your vision.

Great leaders know that listening can be more empowering than speaking. Effective listening is a combination of both verbal and nonverbal communication skills that can be learned and practiced over time.

In a study of over 8,000 individuals employed in a variety of industries, most respondents said that they believed that their communication skills were effective and, in some cases, even more effective than those of their coworkers. 

Yet research has shown that “the average person listens at only about 25% efficiency.” There’s a huge correlation between effective leadership and effective listening. Effective listening “fosters cohesive bonds, commitment, and trust.” 

Practice this:

  • Catch the speaker’s key points and make sure you let her know you heard them.
  • Strive to be more curious and remain open-minded.
  • Practice allowing yourself to be fully present when speaking with teammates.
7. Cultivate an inspiring vision

One of the joys of being a leader is the opportunity to motivate and inspire people to do their best work and pursue projects and goals that enable them to grow. While being inspiring might sound like a soft pursuit, motivation theory has actually shown that there are proven ways leaders can motivate and inspire their teams. 

An effective leader prioritizes the creation of an inspiring work environment that propels their teams to see beyond their perceived limitations and step up to new challenges. 

What’s their secret? 

Motivational leaders have a keen understanding of how to create a strong sense of community and belonging within their organizations. They regularly celebrate and reward achievements, take initiatives, and model performance standards. 

As a result, their teams tend to see lower turnover, increased productivity, and increased motivation.

What are some common behaviors of leaders that teammates would call “inspiring”? 

They inspire others to act by creating a strong, shared sense of organizational purpose, hold their teams accountable for their own destiny, prioritize growth and problem-solving skills, and tend to be humble, compassionate, and transparent — not to mention, great communicators. 

Leadership development experts Dr. Jack Zenger and Dr. Joseph Folkman identified 10 “companion behaviors that define an inspiring leader”:

  1. Making the Emotional Connection
  2. Setting Stretch Goals
  3. Clear Vision
  4. Communication
  5. Developing Others
  6. Being Collaborative
  7. Innovative
  8. Taking Initiative
  9. Champion Change
  10. Being a Role Model

the old way vs the new way

Zenger and Folkman found that leaders don’t have to perfectly exemplify every leadership behavior associated with being inspiring, but if they could strengthen just two or three behaviors, they could become more inspiring.

Practice this:

  • Live and breathe your company mission and regularly communicate your values to your team.
  • Give teammates ownership over challenging projects and set stretch goals.

Identify the problems you want to solve, then figure out the plan for solving them.


Some leaders are born with innate talents and a set of behaviors that make them particularly suited for greatness. But many leadership behaviors can be learned, developed, practiced over time, and used to nurture a new generation of leaders that are yet to rise to the challenge.

Want to grow your leadership abilities? We’re here to help. At BetterUp, we help organizations build happier, healthier, and more-fulfilled leaders. Request a demo to find out more.


Published April 5, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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