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On Leadership: What is high-quality leadership (and do you have it)?


What is high-quality leadership? Apparently it is in steep decline. I’d never heard that exact term until recently, when a study on this topic caught my eye and immediately brought to mind some of my former leaders. I fondly remembered Heidi, a visionary and kind leader who gave me clear direction and sufficient resources, and then trusted me to get the job done. But I’ll also never forget a different senior leader whose self-centered command and control approach caused many talented people to leave a certain organization. 

We’ve all had leaders we’d characterize as good or bad, but according to global leadership consultancy DDI’s recently released 2023 “Global Leadership Forecast,” high-quality leadership is harder and harder to find. That study, which analyzed data from 1,827 human resources experts and 13,694 leaders from over 50 countries and 24 industries, indicated a staggering 17% drop year over year in the number of leaders who reported their company had high-quality leaders. That number is now just 40%, representing the steepest regression in global leadership quality since levels seen in 2007-2008, which was during the peak of the global financial crisis. 

“How we have led in the past will not take us where we aspire to be,” says a recent Harvard Business Review article called “What makes a great leader?” Study after study and article after article offer evidence that leadership qualities that were prized yesterday are not necessarily the skills that will be most effective in the future. The DDI study seems to back that up, citing factors like trust and vulnerability as central to the perception of high-quality leadership.

Trust in leadership is at an all-time low. The DDI study indicated that only 46% of leaders say they trust their immediate supervisor to do the right thing. Fewer, only one-third, say they have faith in other senior leaders at their company – and that includes the top C-suite executives. Lack of trust in leadership is a significant concern, as it signals serious issues with culture – and culture has a huge impact on the successful execution of an organization’s strategy. 

Does remote work build trust? One interesting point around trust in the DDI study was that leaders who work remotely are 22% more likely to trust senior leaders compared with those who work in person. The study admits it’s hard to know if the option to work remotely creates more trust, or if that stems from a culture that trusts its team members to work remotely in the first place. Regardless, it’s important to consider how face-to-face versus remote work affects communication and relationships – and therefore trust.

Vulnerability increases trust. In the past, we as leaders were trained that displaying vulnerability – revealing information about one’s personal life or sharing emotions – could be seen as weakness that could erode authority. But the study says, “The data is clear that leaders who are self-aware about their imperfections build stronger relationships with their teams.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but vulnerability actually increases trust, with employees who responded to the survey being 5.3 times more likely to trust leaders who regularly displayed that trait. Similarly, when leaders “genuinely acknowledge their failures or shortcomings,” respondents were 7.5% more likely to report trust in them.

Vulnerability can mean many things, but the study touched on empathy; caring for and supporting team members’ well-being, growth and development; and acknowledging one’s own failures, among other things. These are the softer, human-centered skills that were scoffed at in traditional business curriculum, but which are more and more critical for success in today’s workplace.

As the Harvard Business Review article says, “The time has come to embrace a new kind of leader who is prepared to take on the promise of innovative problem-solving – who is willing and able to unleash the abundant talents and passions all around us and leverage them to create a better world.” 

For those of us in leadership roles, is it time to reflect on our own leadership qualities? Research – and common sense – indicate that we have an opportunity to adapt, to build higher-quality leadership skills in ourselves and our leaders that will build trust and contribute to stronger, more resilient, healthy and productive teams and organizations.


Suzanna de Baca

Suzanna de Baca is President and CEO of Business Publications Corp.

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