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What makes a great leader?

It's been announced that Emma Walmsley is set to become arguable the most powerful woman in the FTSE 100, thanks to her appointment to CEO at GlaxoSmithKline.


It's a brilliant achievement, an exciting time for the company - and it's got us thinking about leadership.

Which qualities define great leaders? Which behaviours should you demonstrate if you want to get promoted into a leadership position – whether that’s heading up a team, a division or an entire company? 

Here are some of our ideas.


Leaders need the ability to galvanise a workforce – not just for difficult tasks and through challenging projects (although that’s clearly vital too), but day to day. And being inspirational on a day to day basis is a delicate balance to strike. Big speeches and clever soundbites quickly lose their impact, so everyday inspiration has to be subtler and smarter.

Inspirational leaders provide clear goals and structure, the space for everybody to shine and above all a clear, shared vision for everyone to work towards.


Walmsley was an internal candidate; she joined GSK as head of consumer healthcare in Europe in 2010, and had previously spent 17 years rising through the ranks at L’Oreal.

While we don’t think you need to be a company ‘lifer’ to be a great leader, we do think that you need to demonstrate loyalty to both your employers and your team members. Leaders don’t jump ship as soon as the going gets rocky – they are prepared to stick with their colleagues.


GSK’s consumer healthcare arm hasn’t always been an easy ship for Walmsley to steer. Last year the firm undertook a $20 billion three-part asset swap with a rival company, which led to a complete re-shape of the consumer business – which Walmsley was in charge of.

Steering a calm path through choppy waters is a vital leadership skill. And it’s not just about ensuring that the team, division or company a whole performs well – it’s also about supporting each individual within those groups.


It would be foolish to ignore this. Walmsley’s appointment has come on the back of outstanding performance. Her unit recorded 6% revenue growth last year, in spite of the complicated scenario outlined above.

Business leadership, ultimately, is about delivering results. Those results don’t necessarily need to be financial – the key goal of a head of design, for example, might be to ensure that their division delivers outstanding creativity – but they are part of the business’s bottom line.

So those are some of our ideas around what makes a great leader. What do you think?