What little-known quality do all great leaders share?

Claudio Cocorocchia
Platform Curator, Shaping the Future of Media, Information and Entertainment, World Economic Forum Geneva
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Some say we are in a dark age of leadership. With so many challenges facing the world, now more than ever we need better leaders.

But what does “better” mean? Several of today’s leaders are visionary; many possess noble values and the ability to manage severe disruption. But there is one key quality that I would argue is too important to disregard, and missing in many of today’s most powerful people: meaningfulness.

The power of meaning

While reading an article about the top 10 traits of successful leaders, I began thinking of some of history’s most prominent leaders. Napoleon Bonaparte’s regard for social equality spurred him to design the famous Napoleonic Code of legal reforms. Abraham Lincoln’s mission to end slavery in the United States and reunite the country was a fundamental pillar of his leadership. Almost 100 years later, Martin Luther King continued Lincoln’s legacy, becoming the voice of the African-American people crying out for racial equality.

Having meaningfulness is different from having a vision. Vision inspires action, but meaningfulness is the bedrock behind that action. A vision can be designed and constructed. A vision can be borrowed and made yours. A vision does not necessarily need to come from a leader’s heart and soul, but meaningfulness does. Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, once stated that “there are four ingredients in true leadership: brains, soul, heart and good nerves”. I believe that meaningfulness is the synergy between heart and soul, and you either have it or you don’t.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and authored the book Man’s Search for Meaning, simplifies the sources of meaning into just three elements: love, work and suffering. According to Frankl’s Auschwitz experience, those who had a strong sense of meaning in their lives were the most resilient.

Resilience is an essential quality for modern leadership because shocks and disruptions are a constant factor in today’s corporate and geopolitical context. Frankl wrote: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.” This sense of responsibility to something greater than oneself seems to be at odds with today’s leadership culture.

In many pockets of modern business and politics, the interests of the few take precedent over those of the many, and the rise in the globe’s wealth gap is a clear symptom. As Emily Esfahani Smith wrote in an article for the Atlantic: “leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a giver” rather than a taker. She continues: “Meaning … is enduring, it connects the past to the present to the future.” This, combined with a giving philosophy, can certainly be seen as an attribute of effective leadership.

A 2013 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey identified the top 10 leaders most admired by CEOs. Two years later, another survey of millennials by the World Economic Forum resulted in a similar list. In fact, both survey results had two top five leaders in common: Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

admired leaders - global shapers

Here we have two seemingly different groups, the world’s business elite and the newest generation of income earners highlighting how important meaningfulness can be to leadership. We should be asking ourselves a simple question: how do today’s leaders compare?

How family can play a role in better leadership

Should leaders treat employees like family? This is an interesting question. A great leader looks to nurture a team through hardships and successes in order to maximize the development and growth of each team member. As such, it is not too different from parenting. As a relatively new parent of two, my own sense of meaning has changed: the well-being of my family now drives my sense of purpose. Translating this sense of selfless service into a professional context can be a powerful source of meaningfulness. I believe that individuals who apply a family philosophy could transform themselves from good leaders into great ones. This also requires understanding that people can be motivated by different things, and by acknowledging these motivations and addressing them individually, leaders are more likely to achieve better results.

Sharing is another facet of family life: it strengthens a sense of trust, support, commitment and community. According to the OECD’s Better Life index, we spend a considerable amount of our lives in the workplace, so it’s a good thing when leaders encourage a sense of shared success (and shared accountability) among the people they are responsible for.

A call to action

Meaningfulness in leadership takes into consideration the needs of everyone, not just the privileged few. It would be great if demanding this from our leaders became a global standard. “Future leaders will embrace missions that are visionary and describe what their companies will deliver to the world. And those missions will matter to a much larger group than just shareholders,” writes Lisa MacCallum on the World Economic Forum blog website.

The world is in need of more meaningfulness in its leadership, and it is our responsibility, as citizens and employees, to influence the decisions on who is appointed to lead us. It is we who are ultimately responsible for providing the world with better heads of state and business, people who are driven by motives greater and more important than themselves. We deserve and should demand better, because only with more meaningfulness in leadership can we collectively improve the state of the world.

Have you read?
Do happy people make better leaders?
5 ways the best leaders learn from failure
Which world leaders are top on Twitter?

Author: Claudio Cocorocchia is Content Lead, Media, Entertainment and Information Industries, and a Global Leadership Fellow. The Global Leadership Fellows Programme (GLFP) is a unique leadership development programme run by the World Economic Forum.

Image: A businessman walks into a building at Tokyo’s business district in Japan, November 11, 2015. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

3 ways leaders can activate responsible leadership in uncertain times

Ida Jeng Christensen

April 8, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum