USB Blog

Six traits of a successful modern leader

  • Financial Planning Programme Head
  • Apr 04 2019
10 minutes to read


The world is advancing at an astounding rate. We are relying more and more on machines and AI. Climate change is shaping the way we think about resources and agriculture. As a result, we are experiencing constant fluctuations in our economy.

This uncertain environment calls for the highest quality of leadership.

We take a look at the characteristics a modern leader needs to succeed, and refer to a few individuals who clearly embody these traits.

Being able to adapt

Today’s leaders need to be flexible and think on their feet in order to lead appropriately. With technology pushing us into a period of unprecedented development and change, entire industries are being disrupted by startup companies like Uber and AirBnB.

Richard Branson is one such leader; over his long and illustrious career, he has consistently demonstrated the ability to adapt to a changing environment.

Develop resilience

We define a successful leader not only by how they lead us when times are good, but how they stick to their values when times are bad. They should be able to weather tough stretches, stay focused on their goals and take the necessary steps to achieve them.

Nelson Mandela is the ultimate example of resilience in leadership. The man who became a symbol of South Africa’s freedom battled for years against the Apartheid government. He never gave up, and in 1994 he was able to achieve his dream of equal rights for all South Africans.

Be authentic

If you want to gain and keep the trust of people who look to you for guidance, it is important that you embody your values through action.

In the Forbes piece What is Authentic Leadership?, Kevin Kruse discusses four key components to being an authentic leader:

  • Authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine.
  • Authentic leaders are mission driven and focused on results.
  • Authentic leaders lead with their heart, not just their minds.
  • Authentic leaders focus on the long-term

Few leaders demonstrate this approach to leadership better than Alan Mulally. Mulally is recognised as the man who took Ford, a company experiencing multi-billion losses in 2006, to a complete recovery in 2014, the year he retired. This would not have been possible without his authenticity in leadership.

Communicate effectively

As a leader, communicating effectively doesn’t only mean speaking to your team in a way that they understand. It also means giving your team the opportunity to speak, and then listening to what they have to say.

Be optimistic

As a leader, optimism is vital to keep the spirits of your team high. In the article, How the Power of Positive Thinking Won Scientific Credibility, Hans Villarica talks to researcher Michael Scheier about his work on optimism. He discusses how optimism has numerous mental and physical health benefits, and why it  is a trait of successful individuals:

We also know why optimists do better than pessimists. The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they’re problem solvers who try to improve the situation. And if it can’t be altered, they’re also more likely than pessimists to accept that reality and move on. Physically, they’re more likely to engage in behaviors that help protect against disease and promote recovery from illness. They’re less likely to smoke, drink, and have poor diets, and more likely to exercise, sleep well, and adhere to rehab programs. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings. It’s easy to see now why pessimists don’t do so well compared to optimists.

Be humble

Working for an egotistical leader is incredibly frustrating, even if they are highly successful and good at what they do. As a leader, if you want to gather and keep the right people around you, it’s best to apply a good dose of humility to your leadership style.

In his article Humility as a Leadership Trait, John Baldoni discusses three methods you should put into practice as a humble leader:

  • Don’t lean hard on your authority – You don’t have to use your position within an organisation to make people do what you need. Allow people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves.
  • Help promote others – Successful managers help others grow in their careers, even into positions of more authority than their own.
  • Give recognition when it’s due – Here Baldoni offers advice from Alabama coach Paul Bryant: “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”

One leader who was undoubtedly humble was José Mujica, the former president of Uruguay. The BBC reports on how he chose to live in a farmhouse owned by his wife, instead of the luxurious presidential mansion, and that he gave away the majority of his salary.

If you can take these lessons and apply them to your leadership style, you’ll be sure to succeed as a modern leader.

If you would like formal training on how to become a successful modern leader, let The University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) guide you. The first step on your journey as a successful leader begins with the right academic path. Find the course that will mold you into the modern leader you are meant to be, using USB’s Programme Finder.

Begin your journey towards responsible leadership today

More Info

Leave Your Comment

Related articles

Oct 04

7 minutes to read

The future of coaching
Oct 26

8 minutes to read

Is an MBA the golden ticket to...

Join the USB community

Receive updates on the latest news, events, business knowledge and blogs at USB.