The Four Pillars of Leadership

The Four Pillars of Leadership

Leadership, this is not a title or accolade you win or simply get handed. It is something that is constantly evolving through a process of self-development, learning, failing, experience, and commitment. It is also about coming to the realisation that as a leader, one of your most important roles is creating safe, inclusive, equitable environments that are conducive to developing other future leaders.

Great leaders empower others, and not in a fickle, lacklustre manner, but with real action, opportunities, resources, and support. Here are three questions you can ask yourself if you are in a leadership position:

1: Am I empowering others?

2: Have I identified my team members strengths?

3: What am I doing to support my team and help them develop their strengths?

Pirates? Huh?

Francesca Gino, a Harvard Professor of Business Administration, wrote an interesting article called What pirates can teach us about Leadership. In her article, she poses the retrospective theory that the infamous pirate Blackbeard was in fact one of the greatest examples of a leader and could teach us a thing or two today.

"Blackbeard’s ship was arguably more progressive and equitable than American or English society at the time." - Francesca Gino


1: Everyone had an equal voice.

2: Trust was important. Crew members felt empowered and had a strong sense of ownership.

3: They were progressive when it came to diversity, inclusion, and equity and had crew members from all over the world.

Could pirates really be representative of great leadership?

Pirates might have portrayed some of the characteristics of leadership, but those in leadership roles today are not sailing the high seas in search of doubloons and murdering anyone who stands in their way.

Blackbeard was a notorious murderer and plunderer so don’t go rushing out to buy an eye patch and start drinking copious amounts of rum just yet!

"Am I the captain that my crew would choose as its leader today?" - Francesca Gino

Great question. So, what makes a leader in today's world?

Image of a pirate

What is a leader?

I can’t define a leader in one article, that would be impossible. There are many attributes that make a good leader, and these characteristics can shift and change depending on the culture itself.

Some of the top leadership qualities include:

  • Empathy
  • Diversity
  • Being goal-orientated
  • Ethically minded
  • Good communication
  • Self-aware
  • Vulnerable
  • Agile
  • Inspirational
  • Open-minded
  • Supportive

Four key pillars

According to global organisational culture experts, there are four key pillars that form the backbone of leadership:

  • Awareness
  • Abundance Mindset
  • Agility
  • Authenticity


Awareness is a central part of the success of any future leader and two of the most important components of awareness are:

  • Self-awareness
  • Awareness of diversity


Internal self-awareness is the process of understanding our values, personality, habits, and emotions. People in positions of leadership need to have a good grasp of these things as they inform the decision-making abilities of not only the person in a position of leadership but those around them also.

External self-awareness is understanding how other people view our values, emotions, personality, and habits. Strong external self-awareness develops crucial leadership skills such as the ability to show empathy, perspective-taking and relationship building.

Leaders who focus on internal and external self-awareness see themselves more clearly. It is no doubt, a journey of self-development and requires consistent work. Start by getting to know yourself better. Ask your friends, family, or work colleagues for honest feedback. Practice empathy and build your emotional intelligence.   

Awareness of diversity

Empathy involves listening, becoming aware, understanding, and having an acute ability to appreciate the lived experience of each individual person on your team. Everyone is different. Developing the skills to have a strong awareness of others is an important part of leadership and organisational culture in general.

In the past decade, Diversity and Inclusion have become the backbone of workplace culture. Studies on diversity prove that the most diverse teams are more productive, collaborate more effectively and make better decisions. Furthermore, companies who make Diversity and Inclusion a priority are more likely to be more profitable in comparison to those who do not.

“Our latest analysis reaffirms the strong business case for both gender diversity and ethnic and cultural diversity in corporate leadership—and shows that this business case continues to strengthen. The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.”  - McKinsey study on Inclusion and Diversity

Inclusive leadership is powerful. It empowers others to bring their most authentic selves to work, to thrive in a positive environment and to take risks without fear of reprisal, shame, or conflict.

Abundance Mindset

An abundance mindset is having a firm belief that there is plenty out there for everyone.

Think of it as the direct opposite to a mentality of scarcity where we commonly hear phrases like, “I never have enough”, “I don’t have the right skills”, “there are too many other businesses competing against me”.

An abundance mindset allows us to see the opportunities available to us and exponentially grow, while a scarcity mindset holds us back. An abundance mindset craves more. It wants to learn, grow, enable, teach, be happy and inspire.

The best leaders have mastered the ability to live their lives with an abundant mindset, and furthermore, enable others to live this way also.

There are many ways to develop an abundance mindset:

  • Believe that nothing is impossible
  • Stop comparing yourself to others
  • Practice gratitude
  • Lead with equitable decision making – build opportunity for everyone.
  • Never stop learning
  • Recognise possibilities
  • Accept your weaknesses
  • Nurture your strengths

Leaders who develop an abundance mindset open their lives up to limitless opportunities, and in doing so, empower others to also.

Image of a jigsaw piece with the word agile


The world of business environments is ever-changing. In 2021 leaders face many complexities such as the fast pace of digital innovation, global economic uncertainty, and disengaged workforces. 

Agile leaders embrace change and are quick to respond to unexpected external events.

They are firmly rooted in their vision, values, and principles and are motivated by challenges and problem-solving.

There are four types of leadership agility:

  • Self-leadership Agility – This type of agility involves determining the kind of leader you want to be.
  • Stakeholder Agility – Leaders use stakeholder agility to identify an initiative’s key stakeholders, understand what they have at stake, and study their current alignment with the company.
  • Context Setting Agility – Understanding the environment and making decisions based on this.
  • Creative Agility – Approaching complex scenarios collaboratively by testing ideas using quick experimentation techniques, refinement and reflection until the desired outcome is achieved.

Leadership agility is central to creating agile organisations, happier and more productive teams, and sustained success in today’s complex business environment. Here are some ways to start enhancing your agility as a leader:

  • Be open to change. Make decisions and plans that you know are not final.
  • Make conscientious decisions that are intent based. Don’t make changes aimlessly.
  • When you fail, accept it, and move on. Innovate, learn, and keep going.
  • Always keep communication open and ongoing. In fact, overcommunication is often better. Bring everyone along on the journey.
  • Collaboration is key – develop the resources and necessary methodologies to enhance collaboration at every level.
  • Accept that nothing is certain, and you do not have all the answers.
  • Build strong workplace cultures with self-organising and self-managed teams.
  • Have a vision and share it.
  • Listen – for feedback, ideas, opportunities, problems and more.
  • Never stop self-development.


Great leaders are authentic in their actions. They don’t manipulate their feelings, thoughts, and actions to suit anyone or anything. They don’t pretend to be perfect and are always willing to learn. They embrace vulnerability and help others to do so also.

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” Brené Brown

Authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine and show up in all arenas (work and home) as the same person, no façade.  They are focused and committed to the mission of their organisation and not their own. They lead with their heart and their minds and are not afraid to show emotion or vulnerability, key attributes to practicing empathy. Most importantly, they are ethical.

Authentic leaders know themselves well, and they never allow someone else to lead them away from their core values. They put their organisation and team first, are excellent at communication, and know how to use power advantageously, for the right situation and for the goals that need to be achieved.


Leadership is about mapping out where you need to go as a crew, team, or organization to achieve goals, find success, or in the case of Blackbeard, the hidden treasures of Puerto Rico. Leaders set direction and motivate and inspire others to reach goals and milestones.

At the heart of true leadership is serving others before yourself.

Best-selling author, John C. Maxwell defines leadership in a myriad of ways, but perhaps his quote below is most apt.

“When you decide to serve others as a leader, the team’s success becomes your success.” - John C. Maxwell

Leadership is multi-faceted. The attributes that define a great leader are many and complex and certainly not something that comes naturally to everyone. Developing great leadership skills is, well exactly that….. a process of ongoing development, refinement, and reflection.

We have to start somewhere.

Blog by Genie O Dowd

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