Four Things I Learned During Forty Leadership Speeches

“One must always be aware to notice, even though the cost of noticing is to become responsible.” Thylia Moss

As a management consultant my job is leadership: helping people do a better job of leading their organizations successfully through times of great change and uncertainty. 

I know enough about my job to know that 1) I don’t know everything, and 2) anyone can learn more about leadership just by being really good at noticing things going on around them. Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to 40 people answer the question ‘What is a good leader?’, each in the form of a short speech to a large audience. While listening to each of the 40 speeches I noticed some consistent themes emerge. Different speakers were using the same words, again and again, to describe what they strongly believed to be the most important characteristics of good leaders. I managed to identify 46 desirable leadership attributes, or themes, from these 40, passionate speakers. If there was a paragraph that joined these top thoughts into one piece of writing, it might look like the following: 

The best leaders are helpful, set a good example, and are good role models. When engaging with others it is clear that they are kind, caring, and respectful, and are good community builders. Good leaders contribute with an open mind, do the right thing, and happily shoulder their responsibilities while sharing that joy with others. 

How did the themes break down? Counter-intuitively, some words like multi-tasker, mature and intelligent were mentioned only once. At the other end of the spectrum, the top four themes that stood out above all the rest were as follows: 

Be Helpful

Helpful was the stand out leader in this field with 27 mentions. Speakers who used Helpful almost always mentioned it somewhere near the start of their speech, so clearly thought it an important attribute to the point where the next closest theme trails almost 10 mentions behind it. When we look at the leadership attribute of being helpful, it aligns nicely with the concept of Servant Leadership. As described by the well-known thought leader on this subject, Robert K. Greenleaf, “The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” This result suggests to me that the most important attribute we should master if we want to be good leaders is helpfulness. 

Set an Example and be a Good Role Model

Set an example and be a good role model was next in frequency of mention at 18. As a leader, setting a good example and being a good role model largely relates to being good at doing what you say you are going to do or, in other words, walking the talk. Good leaders walk the talk to increase trust and promote higher levels of organizational success. However, this is apparently one of the hardest things to do well, and can have significant consequences when done poorly.

The results of a study of over 6500 employees showed a significant correlation between the trust generated by managers walking the talk and organizational success, because at workplaces “where employees strongly believed their managers followed through on promises, and demonstrated the values they preached, were substantially more profitable than those whose managers scored average or lower.” This shows a nice alignment with the core beliefs of the speakers I listened to and is clearly one of the most important aspects of good leadership. 

Be Kind

Kindness was mentioned third most often by the speakers: 16 times. Importantly, I did not get the impression that the attribute of kindness suggested any weakness on the part of leaders, but related more to building and sustaining an appreciative culture where diversity and individuality were embraced. Mark Twain said that ‘Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see”, and this is a good approximation of the way in which I felt the speakers used this word in their carefully prepared responses. 

Be Respectful and Caring

These two attributes were tied for fourth place with 11 mentions. Being Respectful is a critically important leadership strength and, as described in this Harvard Business Review article, a study of nearly 20,000 employees around the world revealed this as the most important leadership attribute: “Being treated with respect was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback — or even opportunities for learning, growth, and development.”

Caring seems most important in that it helps to bring people together more authentically and effectively than any artificially induced team building could. No leader can lead by themselves, so the attribute of caring helps ensure a deeper sense of togetherness during the tough leadership journeys many undertake these days. As noted by Anthony J. D’angelo “Without a sense of caring, there can be no sense of community” and, without a community of supporters, leaders can founder. 

So who were these gurus that, each in their own way, shared such an inspiring vision of ideal leadership? Grade 5s: all school kids 9 or 10 years of age. 

My son is a 10 year old Grade 5 student, in Victoria BC. As the senior grade of the Junior School the Grade 5 class has an opportunity to assume the mantle of school leadership at the start of the year. Part of this process involves exploring various aspects of leadership, and expressing their beliefs during a presentation to the school body. And a few lucky parents like me.

With assistance from the ever helpful Kathleen Cook and Delina Squire, administrators at the school, I secured a transcript containing all the speeches from the 40 children, did a quick analysis to identify themes, and am sharing my findings with you now.  Interestingly, when my daughter’s Grade 5 class delivered their speeches in 2016, I published the results from that experience too in Are you as Good a Leader as a Fifth Grader?. The top theme at that time? 

Helpful, too.
About the Author

Richard Eaton is a co-founder of Berlineaton a management consulting firm that specializes in continuous improvement, strategy & execution, and leader development. If you are interested in finding out how your organization can improve its effectiveness, please contact Richard at 250-472-3767, or visit