“The unteachables” sounds like a pitch for a documentary about a group of really distracted students, but it’s also a neat phrase that caught my ear when I was interviewing someone recently and asked them what they looked for in an up-and-coming manager.

“Oh you know,” he said, “all of the unteachables”.

In this gentleman’s particular case, he considered the “unteachables” to be energy, ambition and attitude, but I imagine we each have our own version of these. His comments interested me, so I thought I’d write about a few of the qualities that often come up in interviews with industry leaders, in response to the questions, “What do you look for in leaders?” and indeed, “what are your best qualities?”

I chose five qualities because my April event, “Preparing your people for the future” uses the format of five important factors that will help to shape the future of talent in our industry; so five is an important number for me right now!

So, what is it that the industry seniors I speak to are looking for, or are united in their appreciation of? I’m trying to avoid the really obvious qualities here, and have focused instead on some of the (to me) more interesting examples I have heard reiterated in thousands of interviews. Incidentally, the stories that were offered as evidence for these examples were often very rewarding to listen to and gave me great faith in our leaders and our industry!

Mental energy/curiosity

Age discrimination legislation means that people tend to shy away from using the word “energetic” in their job advertisements these days for fear that the word is construed as an appeal for young applicants. But most of the “senior” individuals I know are energetic and respect energy in their recruits. I don’t mean the ability to run around and do a lot of press-ups; I mean a relentless striving to achieve more and be better, to find out what works best, to lift back the lid on problems and roadblocks. People who are energetic are problem solvers – they are tenacious and will find a way through any challenge. They have the mental energy and curiosity to learn and learn and learn, and to exert control when they see there is none. It is these kind of people who often have…

…A desire to heal, irrespective of boundaries

Good people tend to increase their own remit by grabbing hold of things outside their immediate purview. “It just started to fall to me to do this because I showed willing and I was good at it” is something I hear a lot. A similar but even more telling line is: “I couldn’t stand seeing it being done badly, so I took control of it”. That’s why so many good people create their own role: they may not have started out with their current job description, but they built upon a foundation. I know lots of individuals who have been promoted in this way, rather than taking the traditional “next step up”.

Selfless conception of success

Great leaders are happy to create a legacy of success and take as much pleasure in the success of their peers, teams and subordinates as they do their own – indeed, they recognise that these are one and the same. It’s one of the classic “management learning curve” moments: strong leaders know how to trust and empower others, and to give away work. If they can motivate and inspire others to do a good job, whilst supporting them enough to make them feel stronger rather than simply abandoned, even better. “Freedom within boundaries” is one of the many ways I’ve heard this approach to leadership described. On a related note, about a year ago I interviewed a very senior marketing leader for a major international brand, who had recently (and very successfully) adopted a new approach to briefing his several marketing agencies. “Go away for three months, and come back with something that amazes me,” he said. And they did. (Do I have to add that an awful lot of very clever groundwork had enabled him to get to that point?).


There’s an old proverb that says that wisdom is the proper application of knowledge. The wise person knows which battles to fight. They know the value of getting to know their stakeholders and when to push the buttons of their managers, peers and staff. Finally, there are many ways to say “no” – and the wise person knows not just when to say no, but how to say it.


I think empathy is one of the most important and desirable traits in an effective leader – but feel free to debate this with me! It might seem a bit glib to see empathy as the natural corrective of unbridled ambition, but I can honestly say that the truly great leaders I have met have ambition and empathy in equal measure.

If true empathy is relatively rare among the very successful, it is all the more valuable for it. Empathetic leaders know how to get the best out of their staff, and have the rare skill of reducing churn. I have always maintained that the best employee engagement strategy is to not need an employee engagement strategy, and that starts at the top.

Feel free to share your favourite leadership qualities.