8 Things Impactful Leaders Need

Impactful leaders blog

I’ve spent the last ten years at Just Love and On Purpose trying to develop people into leaders who can create significant social and environmental impact. I’ve been fortunate to work alongside many people who are doing this really well, and have learned from many different leaders who are doing great work. At the same time, it can feel like lots of organisations and leaders aren’t delivering as much positive impact as we might like. So, what separates the leaders who are creating real change from those who are well-meaning but ultimately not that effective? Below I suggest 8 things that I think characterise leaders who are likely to create meaningful impact – this isn’t based on any one individual, but combines a collection of characteristics that I’ve observed and investigated over the last decade. What do you think of them?

1. They’re trying to do as much good as they can

This seems obvious, but is actually not as common as we might think. It starts with a deep, genuine passion – a real drive and determination to see big change happen. But, this needs to be combined with a willingness to think critically. In terms of both the strategy of their organisations and the trajectory of their careers, these leaders will have thought really carefully about choosing issues to work on and interventions to try that have the biggest impact – and they track whether or not it’s working. Doing good is also something that spills outside of their work. They might be giving some (or lots) of their money away, engaging with their local community, or changing their lifestyle to fly less, reduce meat consumption, or invest differently. For leaders with this kind of drive, creating a positive impact in the world can’t just be restricted to 9-5pm on weekdays.

2. They’re constantly learning

There’s so much in this one – they’ve got the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know that much, and that some of their views must be wrong. So, they’re trying hard to learn new things and listen to new voices – even those they find a bit difficult, and particularly those on the margins. They’re keen to try and reconcile different views and find common ground. In addition to this, they’re proactively and strategically investing in their own development, and they’re also keen to experiment, learn from failure, and cultivate a growth mindset that sees all their abilities as open to being grown and improved. 

3. They’re strategic & systemic

Impactful leaders are prepared to do the analysis, planning and structured problem solving to help them work out the best way to get from A to B – but they also recognise that things are rarely simple enough that they follow a neat, linear journey. So, they take in the big picture of how everything interconnects, and think creatively about the best ways to navigate complex situations. They see that the most strategic leverage points for making an impact are often at the deeper, more systemic levels – changing structures and even shifting values and worldviews to create different outcomes. They recognise that all approaches to change will involve some hard-edged analysis of data and mapping of different strategic routes, but will also require a deep understanding of people and how they are likely to respond to your ideas – meaning that different kinds of intelligence and thinking will be needed in different situations.

4. They’ve got a hopeful vision

If you’re going to lead change, you need to have a sense of what a better world might look like. The leaders who really inspire us have thought about what we should be moving towards, not just what we should be moving away from – and they can paint a picture of that future in a way that brings other people hope and motivation. Hopeful vision plays a huge role in driving teams forward to create their desired impact – impactful leaders won’t be afraid to dream big and set ambitious goals. They can also share vision in a way that invites everyone to participate, rather than pitting one section of society against another. 

5. They’re empowering others

The most impactful solutions are often the ones that empower beneficiaries to solve their own problems – so impactful leaders will have thought about this with respect to the impact they’re trying to create. The best leaders are ones that create more leaders around them, so within their organisations and teams they create opportunities for others to lead and learn in pursuit of a shared vision. Impactful leaders will often hold back from telling people what to do, and take a coaching approach that enables them to work out their best way forward. These leaders encourage their teams so that they believe they can take on the biggest challenges, but are also unafraid to give constructive feedback that makes them better. 

6. They’re managing themselves well

Firstly, they’ll be looking after themselves well – managing their energy and wellbeing levels to ensure that they can continue to perform at a high level. A big part of this is managing time – so often a downfall of leaders and organisations. They have a healthy perspective on time, they can prioritise ruthlessly, they have high productivity and strategies for keeping procrastination at bay, and good processes for making all of this happen on a consistent basis. Ideally, they will also create a good culture around all of this in their organisations. 

7. They do things differently

Impactful leaders are prepared to take risks that others aren’t, to pursue goals that seem on the verge of impossible. They think imaginatively and creatively about the best ways to go forward, and they foster a culture of innovation within their teams. They think that ‘this is how it’s always been done’ is a pretty rubbish reason to do anything, and they’re always curious about how things can be improved and reimagined for better outcomes. They will challenge assumptions and groupthink, and foster fresh insights about the best ways to take on challenges.

8. They’re talent and team obsessed 

Impactful leaders love identifying and attracting the best people to join their organisations. They think long-term about the leaders people could progress into, and help them get there. They have thought about the key attributes for your organisation’s leaders, and are looking to cultivate them widely. They also know that having talented leaders throughout the organisation isn’t enough – people need to combine in a way that makes their contribution greater than the sum of their parts. They will often think about how to ensure that teams flourish, and how to create a culture that lasts for the long-term.

There’s more to explore with all of these 8 things – and I’d like to write a full post on each of them in the coming weeks.

There are also so many other things that matter for good, impactful leadership. Are there any of the 8 I mentioned that you disagree with, or any other especially vital ones that you think I should have included? I would love to hear your thoughts – that way we can all keep learning! 


1. How can a leader effectively measure and track their impact, especially in complex social and environmental contexts? 

Impactful leaders can measure their effectiveness through a variety of methods. These include setting clear, measurable goals aligned with their mission; using feedback mechanisms like surveys and interviews to gauge the impact on those they serve; and employing data analytics to track performance indicators over time. This approach allows leaders to see the tangible effects of their work and adjust strategies as necessary.

2. What challenges do impactful leaders typically face when trying to foster a culture of innovation and risk-taking within their teams, and how can they overcome these challenges? 

The main challenges in fostering innovation and risk-taking include overcoming fear of failure and navigating the resistance to change that can exist within teams and organisations. Leaders can address these challenges by establishing a culture that values learning and growth over perfection, providing support and resources for experimentation, and recognising and celebrating efforts and successes in innovation, thereby reinforcing the value of taking calculated risks.

3. Can you provide examples of leaders who embody these eight qualities and the specific impacts they have achieved? 

Leaders such as Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, exemplify these qualities. Yunus' work in microfinance and social business has had a profound impact on poverty reduction, demonstrating how innovative thinking, a focus on empowering others, and a strong vision can achieve significant social change. His leadership showcases how the eight qualities can drive meaningful impact in the world.

(FAQ answers are generated by AI)