What are the Qualities that make a natural leader?

We mark International Women’s Day by exploring the qualities of a true leader, to inspire and encourage women in leadership.


Being a true leader is often natural and unintentional, rather than a reflection on your job title or the position you hold within an organisation. With International Women’s Day on Sunday, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on what makes a natural leader and how we can capture these leadership qualities and behaviours in order to inspire more women to reach their full potential.

 I’ve always been fascinated by what makes a natural leader. When I say natural leader, I’m not referring to the number of times someone can squeeze the word ‘manager’ or ‘director’ onto their business card. I’m talking about those who have a quality of leadership that makes people want to follow them; they make the world a better place by being here.  What I call unintentional leaders. With International Women’s Day on Sunday, I’ve been thinking once again about leaders, in particular female leaders. Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that while women make up almost 50% of the workforce, it drops to only 31.5% of key management positions and trails off to a woeful 14.1% of chair positions, 26.8% of directorships and 17.1% of CEOs. This proves women in leadership is a topic that deserves our attention.

Spotting a true leader

While discussing natural leaders with a colleague the other day, she mentioned her daughter’s new kindergarten class contains one child who the others are drawn towards. A born leader at the age of five. So what is it that sets this ‘little leader’ apart? Spotting someone with natural leadership skills within a group of people is something I have become practised at through my work. For example, we recently ran a Leadership Development Programme for a large corporation. We deliberately don’t collect a lot of information from clients in advance, allowing us to remain unbiased and provide a level playing field for all participants. As a result, we didn’t know who held which role within their team. When the course concluded, I asked our facilitators to guess who the ‘official’ leader was. They all identified the same person and guess what? That person was not the manager. Time and time again we see that it is a person’s skills and attributes, not their title, that makes a true leader. Late last year our clients were working together on a problem-solving exercise alongside one of our horses Darcy. We could all see it wasn’t working, as one man was trying to control the group. Darcy, being the intuitive creature he is, was picking up on this conflict among her ‘human’ teammates and was refusing to move forward. Eventually, one of the women in the group turned around and told the man he could be ‘the leader’. Clarifying the roles was enough to improve the group dynamic vastly. To me, though, it wasn’t the man who was the true leader, but the woman who had made a subtle but important gesture for the benefit of a team. Darcy reflected this change by moving forward. On a separate occasion another group was again trying to solve a problem and one person dominating the conversation, assertively throwing out ideas which didn’t click with the group. Eventually, a young woman who had been quieter the whole time put forward her idea. It was clever, well-articulated and it worked! I couldn’t have been prouder of her.

That special something

While I could share examples of true leadership all day, what I really want to focus on going forward is the qualities that make a natural and authentic leader. Soon, Leading Edge Professional Development will be delving deeper into this fascinating subject, launching an interview series called Leading Ladies. In this, we will pose a range of important questions to women from all walks of life who we consider to be natural leaders in their own field; whether that be corporate, academic, charity, sport, at home or in the arts. I hope, from this, to pinpoint some unintentional leadership traits in order to inspire and help others. What do you think are some of the qualities of an unintentional leader? Tell us in the comments.