skip to content

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

27 June 2017 – the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) has been working with the British Council to help define what good leadership looks like in a global policy and political context and across different locations and cultures. The study, undertaken by CISL, will inform the design of a new British Council programme to support future global leaders in the UK and overseas.

Global Definitions LeadershRead the literature review

The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) was commissioned to conduct a literature review on leadership and leadership development by the British Council. The purpose was to inform the design of a new global programme to support future global leaders in the UK and overseas, and to underpin its methodology for developing leadership skills and qualities.

More specifically, the British Council wished to improve their understanding of what ‘good’ leadership means, including how these concepts are understood across different countries and regions (most notably China, Egypt, India, Kenya and Mexico), and specifically, within the fields of policy and politics. In addition, the British Council sought to gain insight from existing leadership theories and leadership development programmes into how leadership is developed, and how perspectives and practices differ globally.

The study makes eight recommendations for what constitutes good leadership.

Recommendation 1:  ‘Good’ leadership should ultimately be defined and judged in relation to the complex global socio-economic and environmental risks and opportunities, and the pursuit of ‘sustainable development’ outcomes.

Recommendation 2: ‘Good’ leadership will require the cultivation of a ‘global’ and a ‘systems’ mindset, developing skills of open-mindedness, inclusivity, long-term and systemic thinking, and navigating complexity without trying to artificially reduce it.

Recommendation 3: ‘Good’ leadership should be understood, not only in terms of outcomes (eg sustainable development) but also in the motivation and character of leaders, bearing in mind that certain traits are valued more by different genders and ages.

Recommendation 4: ‘Good’ leadership is also defined in terms of its process – who is involved, who is empowered – and the values underpinning such decisions. It should take care not to focus unduly on individuals with formal power, but also consider the role of followers, and distributed leadership.

Recommendation 5: ‘Good’ leadership in a political or policy context would benefit from applying the three tests of public value, legitimacy and capability. In terms of specific skills required by those seeking to bring about change, a focus on the role of policy entrepreneurs could be instructional.

Recommendation 6: ‘Good’ policy and political leaders need to develop the ability to ‘read the context’ so that they understand the most pressing challenges and likely opportunities.

Recommendation 7: Some basic foundations of good leadership can be drawn and conveyed from the international literature, while tailoring examples and aspirations to suit each cultural context.

Recommendation 8: A hybrid model of leadership development is likely to add most value – focusing on knowledge, values and skills – although there may need to be some adaptations as some nations are further than others along the prescriptive-interactive-experiential learning spectrum.

The review concludes with some final reflections and a summary of recommendations for developing the new global programme.

Citing the literature review

University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). A report commissioned by the British Council. (2017, June) Global Definitions of Leadership and Theories of Leadership Development: Literature Review. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Author and acknowledgments

The report was commissioned by the British Council and authored by Dr Wayne Visser, CISL Fellow (Lead Researcher), Dr Louise Drake and Beverley Cornaby. The study considered global definitions of leadership and theories of leadership development and was informed by members of CISL’s network of academics and leaders. Contributors included Dr Dennis Grube from the University of Cambridge Department of POLIS, Professor Sucheta Nadkani from the Cambridge Judge Business School, and Elspeth Donovan, Director CISL South Africa. 


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of  CISL or  the wider University  of Cambridge, or clients.


Published: June 2017