Good Leadership in UK Business

Character and Leadership

We conducted research to explore understandings of "good leadership" across three sectors – finance, law, and tech – to give an overall picture of good leadership in UK business.

OCP 5092 min


Good leadership is essential for businesses to perform at their best—to maintain a positive culture, make the most of opportunities for growth, return value to their stakeholders, and navigate the uncertainties and challenges they face. Proposals for what such leadership should look like are widely published and applied in frameworks and educational programmes delivered by firms, business schools, and leadership consultancies. Such theoretical and normative approaches are valuable, but also important is the view on the ground— the understanding or ‘prototype’ of good leadership within UK business.

The prototype of good leadership often lies beneath the surface, but its importance is present in the way it shapes the interpretation of what leaders do, the expectations that are set, and the performance of leadership roles. It may be important to question the existing prototype and introduce new ideas, but a clear grasp of how good leadership is understood is an essential starting point.

This report presents research by the Oxford Character Project into good leadership in UK business, involving over 1,100 participants working in 36 firms around the UK.

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Research questions

Good leadership that is both effective and ethical is vital if businesses are to face the challenges before them and grow into the future. Businesses have an essential role to play in addressing the economic, social, and environmental challenges that face us around the world and that threaten the prosperity of society. What does it look like to lead in a way that brings business and societal benefits together?

In this research, we sought to understand three questions:

1. How do employees in UK firms understand good leadership?

2. Do ideas of good leadership vary between gender, age, education, or leadership level?

3. Do different sectors have different leadership prototypes?

Rather than focusing on a single theory or style of leadership, we sought to identify the shared idea or prototype of good leadership held by those working in businesses in the UK. This perspective is vital since perceptions of good leadership drive interpretation, expectations, and performance.

OCP 5227 min

Key findings

  1. Participants identified 84 features, reflecting three dimensions of good leadership: Character, professional competence, and interpersonal skills.
  2. Character is central to good leadership: 52% of features relate to character, 35% to interpersonal skills, and 13% to professional competence.
  3. Kindness, creativity, and humility are widely considered important for good leadership but were rated by participants among the five least central features.
  4. There is a high degree of consensus between genders and across leadership levels.
  5. Participants with higher levels of education consider it less central that leaders are caring, friendly, helpful, and kind.
  6. Millennials and Gen Zs value leaders who are attentive, committed to mentoring, and who can provide answers to questions and solutions to problems.
  7. Across the sectors of finance, law, and technology, leaders are expected to be competent, hardworking, and committed. Beyond these qualities, however, there are distinct profiles between sectors.
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Sectors Top 15 1

Good leadership in Finance

Risk awareness is the most central feature of good leadership according to professionals we surveyed in the finance sector, featuring at the top of a list which includes integrity, responsibility, trustworthiness, and good judgement. These were found lacking in the analysis that followed in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and subsequent scandals , and their identification may be aspirational.
It may also reflect changes in culture and conduct that have taken place in the sector, driven within many firms and catalysed by the work of such organisations as the Financial Services Cultures Board and Financial Markets Standards Board. Comparing finance with other sectors, inclusivity is regarded as more central to good leadership, suggesting that efforts to promote greater diversity in the financial services industry may be taking root.