Galvanize the strengths of others to achieve common goals. Use interpersonal skills to influence, mentor, coach, and develop others. Negotiate and manage conflict.


Jump to section: Understanding Leadership | Cultivating Leadership | Quick Guide to Being a Leader | Lead by Example to Inspire SuccessTaking Action | Resources | Need Help?References


Understanding leadership

Leadership is the “relational and ethical process of people together attempting to accomplish positive change,” [1] In other words, leadership is the process of empowering others to maximize their efforts, and engaging them in fulfilling a vision.

Leadership involves a spectrum of skills and abilities ranging from interpersonal and management skills, to analytical and innovative thinking. [2] Successful leadership manifests in various forms and is measured in a context-dependent manner. [3] For instance, successful business leaders, together with their team, boost their company’s growth, whereas the success of political leaders is measured at the level of law and policy implementation which are in turn reflected by the growth of a community. On the other hand, student leaders voice their peers’ concerns and take the lead on promoting initiatives towards enhancing other students’ educational and extra-curricular experience.


Why does it matter?

While successful managers see their projects to completion on time and within budget, leaders possess additional attributes—such as exceptional self-awareness and emotional intelligence—that allow them to influence and inspire others towards performing their best work to accomplishing shared goals. [4] In addition to being powerful team players, leaders do not wait for others; instead, they proactively take initiatives and bring their teams on board in order to see their ideas flourish.  

Leading a team of various experts in order to attain a goal is certainly a more effective strategy than going on a quest alone, regardless of your level of expertise.  You will achieve bigger and more meaningful goals as a team by leveraging your collective strengths and contributions. Subsequently, you and your team members experience a higher sense of accomplishment, one of the many reasons people aspire to become leaders in their field.


Cultivating Leadership

There is no one-size-fits-all model of leadership as situations and contexts dictate which leadership style is appropriate. In business, Transformation Leadership has proven to be most effective, whereby emotionally intelligent leaders focus on the individual needs and personal development of their followers.[5] This leadership style has gained substantial importance due to its significant impact on organizational outcomes since the mid-1980s. [6][7]

A transformational leader [8]

All successful leaders, regardless of their role (e.g., students, CEOs, activists) or leadership style, have two broad character traits in common: willpower and humility. [9] What made Martin Luther King a successful movement leader? How did Warren Buffett become one of the most successful business leaders in the world? [10] While they had significantly different goals, both of these leaders are remarkably humble and resilient individuals who inspired a flock of followers on their rocky, yet successful, path toward fulfilling their visions.

There is no one-size-fits-all model of leadership as situations and contexts dictate which leadership style is appropriate. In business, Transformation Leadership has proven to be most effective, whereby emotionally intelligent leaders focus on the individual needs and personal development of their followers. [11] This leadership style has gained importance due to its significant impact on organizational outcomes since the mid-1980s. [12][13]

In order to excel as a leader in your area of expertise, you need to maintain an advanced level of area-specific knowledge and to cultivate relevant skills needed in order to thrive in your role. For example, a leader at a construction firm has a deep understanding of construction materials and repair tools, whereas a leader at a Software Development company has advanced computer skills.

Having a role model or a mentor is beneficial for developing leadership skills. [14] A good mentor challenges your ideas, encourages you in times of difficulties, and provides you with advice and tips drawn from experience. Consider people in your current environment who could serve as mentors for you. While your academic supervisor is an obvious place to start, consider others as well, including peers whose leadership style is inspiring, and who would be willing to give you feedback.

As a prospective leader, working with a successful leader presents a tremendous opportunity to experience a follower’s perspective and to discover what character traits inspire you to follow and commit to that leader’s vision. Additionally, having been a follower once serves as a useful reminder for future leaders to remain humble and empathetic towards their followers. [15]


Quick Guide to Being a Leader

  1. Get involved in activities that offer you the opportunity to lead others, whether on the job, or during your studies
  2. Concentrate on building the right team of competent and motivated individuals (the “who”) before setting out strategies or tactics (the “what”) [16]
  3. Confront the true facts of a situation no matter how brutal they may be. Your team will be motivated to act by facts which, when negative, will cultivate resilience and enthusiasm. Consider the following strategies:
    1. In reflecting on a given situation, lead with questions (not answers) to get a clear picture of reality and its implications.
    2. Engage in genuine dialogue and debate, not coercion.
    3. Turn mistakes into a learning experience rather than pointing blame.
    4. Build filtering mechanisms to discern essential facts from background noise.
  4. The Hedgehog Concept: Avoid getting distracted into new fields where you lack the expertise by only pursuing the projects that: [17]

    1. Reflect your vision, core values (e.g., innovation), and purpose (e.g., to improve human health). Try this group exercise to capture the core values and purpose of your team.

    2. Allow you to leverage your strengths and core competencies and those of your team.

    3. Drive profitability.

  5. Build a well-defined operational system that fosters discipline, freedom and responsibility to eliminate the need for excessive control (e.g., hierarchy, bureaucracy). Consider recruiting self-disciplined and diligent individuals, leading a culture of ethical and professional conduct, and creating a “stop doing” lists to better focus on what is crucial for growth. [18]


Lead by Example to Inspire Success

  • Take initiative and promote positive change. If you want your team to maintain a sustainable environment, get a recycle bin and use it!
  • Develop your emotional intelligence to sharpen your interpersonal skills (e.g., be an active listener)
  • Promote self-awareness among your team, starting with yourself: openly share your mistakes and vulnerabilities and be accountable for your actions. Demonstrate your strengths through your actions rather than words; you will earn the respect and the loyalty of your team
  • Mentor others and value their potential
  • Be equitable and inclusive: make decisions impartially, state expectations, manage conflict, and give credit fairly
  • Be willing to put the interests of your organization or team before personal greatness
  • Use a range of leadership styles


Taking Action







  • Student Leaders at McGill: This site is a one-stop shop offering tools and program for students looking to be in leadership positions.

  • How-to Guides – Earth Leadership Program – Stanford University: include resources about leading teams, communications skills and others. 


  • Introverts and Leadership Series Part 1 and Part 2: Delivered by Karl Moore, Professor of Strategy & Organization at McGill’s Faculty of Management.

Groups & associations

Books, articles & reports


Need help?

Campus Life & Engagement

  • General Inquiries: cle [at]
  • New Student-related inquiries: firstyear [at]
  • (514)-398-6913


1  Exploring Leadership: for college students who want to make a difference. Komives, S.R. (1998).

2 Professional Development: Shaping Effective Programs for STEM Graduate Students. Denecke, D. (2017).

3 A Review of Leadership Theories, Principles and Styles and Their Relevance to Educational Management. Amanchukwu, R.N. (2015).

4, 21 True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. George, B. (2007).

5, 11 From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to Share the Vision. Bass, B.M. (1990).

6, 12 Transformational leadership, learning, and employability: Effects on performance among faculty members. Camps, J. (2011).

7, 13 The impact of transformational leadership on organizational and leadership effectiveness: The Turkish case. Erkutlu, H. (2008).

8 Leadership and performance beyond expectations. Bass, B.M. (1985).

9, 16, 17, 18, Good to great: why some companies make the leap --and others don't. Collins, J. (2012).

10 Forbes World’s Billionaires List. Kroll, L. (2020).

14 3 Reasons All Great Leaders Have Mentors (And Mentees). Rashid, B. (2017).

15 To Be a Good Leader, First Be a Good Follower. UNC Executive Development. (2016).

As a McGill student, your participation in activities such as training workshops and volunteering are tracked on your Co-Curricular Record (CCR)! Having your co-curricular activities listed in one document can help you revise your CV or cover letter, prepare for interviews, and explore career options. Learn how to leverage this important document through myInvolvement, and make your training count!
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