The 7 Most Important Leadership Skills


Leaders Recreate Leaders

I have heard this many times in meetings and workshops, and I believe that I can switch our mindset about leadership.

Leadership is a part of everyday life. When we think about leadership, we picture famous CEOs, such as Richard Branson, Elon Musk, or successful sports coaches like Steven Hansen (All Blacks) or Sir Alex Ferguson. We sometimes don’t understand that we are all leaders – in work, sport, home, and most importantly, of ourselves.

Therefore, it becomes vital to identify the skills needed to become a successful leader in all areas.


How many times have we heard a high performing athlete talk about their coach as a great communicator? The ability to communicate is down to mastering several building blocks:

Learning to listen

We find it so easy to listen to respond instead of listening to listen. If we are already trying to think about the responses, we will likely miss essential pieces of information. We want to help, therefore, give answers. But sometimes, that best way is to let the individual or team discover the answer themselves.

Body Language

Non-verbal communication plays a massive role in the way a message can be taken and delivered. Some experts believe that it might be up to 70%. So, be aware of it and practice.

Think Win/Win

One of the factors of highly effective people, from Steven Covey’s book, is the idea of win/win. Win/win should be the goal of decisions. We need to see life as a collective experience, but there is too much emphasis on competition, both internal and external, in organisations. We have all experienced harmful competition in a cooperate setting. In some of my executive coaching sessions, the most significant area to develop is this. Win/win is a mindset to find benefits in all interactions constantly.


Breathe and relax; it’s amazing what stress can do to communication. The science behind breathwork has gained massive weight thanks to the great work of Wim Hoff, Dr Andrew Hubberman, James Nestor, and that is to name a few. Taking simple breaths in the right way can activate our rest and digest nervous system, allowing free-flowing communication. We can see that sports teams that are the most relaxed communicate the best.

Emotional Intelligence

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.” – Daniel Goleman.

Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence (EQ) is an area that we can all develop. Understanding your emotion and that of others will allow you to be a better leader. One of the biggest problems in low EQ is the fact you need to be right all the time; this can and will have considerable leadership consequences. High EQ will allow control of emotions in tough and stressful situations.


Being yourself as a leader has come to the forefront in both sports and business. This is something that I strongly encourage my cognitive athletes to develop. People around you can tell if you are not authentic in your leadership; besides, this can be very energy draining. Check out our resource with Fergus Connelly talking about authenticity in high performers here.

When I first started coaching in professional sport, this was the case for me. I had worked under some fantastic coaches and tried to recreate their styles. It did not work and left me exhausted. We all need to find our way and not worry about making mistakes or asking for help.

Growth Mindset

“A growth mindset is when students understand that their abilities can be developed.” (Dweck, 2014).

A growth mindset will play an essential role in successful leadership. Leaders with a growth mindset do the following:

  • Embrace challenges
  • Look for obstacles to develop
  • Understand that long term effort is a requirement
  • Embrace criticism
  • Take inspiration from others

It’s not hard to see that this would be an advantage to a leader. In the Cognitive Athlete Programme, when working with senior business leaders, we discuss this in one of the first areas. A business that thinks this is the way to do things because this is how it’s always been done will struggle. A growth mindset is a must, especially in the current situation.


Empathy is not sympathy. It’s like EQ; it’s a skill that can be developed. Michael Miller talks about three areas:

  • Cognitive empathy

The ability to imagine ourselves in the situation. What is that person thinking? What do they think the other person will think?

  • Emotive empathy

The ability to feel ourselves in the situation – the emotions and feelings.

  • Empathic action

The ability to listen to the individual and not do anything. It is human nature to want to help, but this can sometimes worsen the problem, especially if cognitive and emotive empathy has not occurred or been misread.

Purpose & Passion

The easiest way that I have had this explained to me is by thinking about a surfer. A surfer will easily get out of bed a 4 am to catch the perfect wave but will struggle to get out of bed at 7:30 am to go to work because they believe that surfing is their purpose and passion.

Leaders that have purpose and passion create enthusiastic environments that are exciting to be in. If someone knows their purpose, there is a sense of confidence that comes across when matched with a passionate leader with enormous amounts of energy.


Having the confidence to make mistakes and recognise that you made a mistake is a high performing leadership principle. It becomes hugely freeing to someone once they become accountable for their mistakes. Coaching works because a coach should make you accountable for the habits, methods and principles you want to improve and develop. There is also a positive side to this, if you have done something well, take credit. We are the worst at taking credit for positive actions.


These are the seven most common leadership skills that I have come across consistently in high-performing cognitive athletes and coaches. Many more skills could be included in the list, but for me, my advice is to find what other successful leaders do and then develop from there.

Thanks for reading, read more about leadership and how to develop with criticism here.


Director and Founder