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Good communication, ability to motivate, and integrity seen by the workforce as the most important qualities for business leaders

But many employees think their bosses lack the qualities they need to lead a successful business

Good communication, the ability to motivate, and integrity are seen by UK workers as the most important attributes to lead a successful business, according to a new study(1) by Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann, the executive search and leadership consultancy. Yet according to the employees surveyed, the majority of bosses don’t demonstrate these qualities in the workplace.

As the summer blockbuster & lsquo;Horrible Bosses’, starring Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, draws in audiences across the UK(2), the research looks into what the nation’s workforce thinks of business leaders and what they think are the qualities required to manage a successful company, findings which Korn/Ferry has then analysed in the light of its own experience of assessing, developing and hiring business leaders. 

Tony Vardy, Managing Director, Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann, explained: “As a business that has been assessing and placing company bosses for over 40 years, we have a wealth of knowledge of what leaders need to be successful.  However, our research shows that many employees think their boss doesn’t have the necessary leadership attributes. Our experience tells us that in reality most business leaders do have these qualities, certainly in large companies, but some demonstrate these more effectively to shareholders or the media than to their employees. The best company leaders succeed in proving their leadership characteristics to all stakeholders: shareholders, customers, the media, colleagues and employees alike.”

Being a good communicator is the quality most commonly associated with being an effective business leader according to the findings, but only one in five workers (21%) believes the boss of their business has this skill. The ability to motivate staff is seen as the second most important characteristic, but just 13 per cent of employees think their boss is a good motivator.

Having a good moral compass is seen as a crucial & lsquo;boss factor’, but just 14 per cent of workers think their boss has integrity, a quality that is much more important to female workers, with 13 per cent of them seeing it as the most important attribute compared to just 7 per cent of men.

Less than one in 10 employees (9%) sees their organisation’s leader as inspirational, and just 16 per cent think they have long-term vision. Only 17 per cent of UK workers think their boss is decisive, and fewer still (12 per cent) think their boss has charisma or personality.

But while workers don’t rate their own bosses, they don’t necessarily think celebrity bosses would do a better job either, with only one in three workers (37%) saying they think The Apprentice’s Lord Sugar would run their organisation better than their current boss. They do think business leaders are generally given a hard time in the media though, with 29 per cent saying the way they are portrayed in the media diminishes their reputation, compared to just 10 per cent who think it enhances it.

UKworkers think bosses that are bad leaders are those that are arrogant, have poor communication skills, and are uncaring. Employees are also critical of the type of boss who is obsessed with targets, places more interest in investors than employees, is indecisive or risk-averse, or focuses on cost control rather than growth.

Top 10 qualities of effective business leaders according to UK workers

Percentage of UK workers who think the leader of their organisation possesses this quality

Good communicator


Ability to motivate






Long-term vision






Charisma or personality


Good judge of character




Tony Vardy continues: “Employees are often perceptive and accurate about aspects of what it takes to be a great boss. For example, in our recent research they identified being a good communicator as the most important factor, which we agree is an absolutely essential leadership characteristic. But they tend to choose attributes that directly affect the interaction between them and their boss such as the ability to motivate or being a good judge of character, and do not place as much emphasis on characteristics that may be invisible to them.   Strategic skills or the development of the leadership team are two examples of characteristics important for leaders, however the majority of the workforce didn’t refer to this through the course of our research.” 

Through its work as the world’s leading executive search, leadership and talent management firm, Korn/Ferry has developed a comprehensive list of important leadership characteristics that are fundamental for business leaders or aspiring business leaders.  They should have a well-rounded set of skills and qualities that range from strategic to operational and organisational skills, and personal, interpersonal characteristics and the ability to develop their team.

The leadership characteristics Korn/Ferry has identified are:

Leadership factor 1: Strategic skills

Understanding the business

Making complex decisions

Creating the new and different

Leadership factor 2: Operating skills

Keeping on track

Getting organised

Delegating work effectively

Managing work processes

Leadership characteristic 3: Courage

Dealing with trouble

Evaluating and deploying people accurately

Leadership characteristic 4: Focusing on actions and outcomes

Leadership characteristic 5: organisational positioning skills

Being organisationally smart

Communicating effectively

Managing the Board/top management

Leadership characteristic 6: Personal and interpersonal skills

Relating skills

Caring about others

Managing diverse relationships

Inspiring others

Acting with honour and character

Being open and receptive

Demonstrating personal flexibility


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