Effective leadership is considered essential for conservation success, but there is currently not enough understanding of what conservation leaders are doing, and what they should be doing, in order to be effective. Other sectors, such as health, commerce, education, industry and the military have studied leadership for decades, and have a good knowledge of particular styles and suitable instruments for measuring leadership effectiveness. This study uses the perspectives of conservation professionals through interviews, a focus group and an online survey, to help develop a more comprehensive picture of the role of leaders, and leadership, within the discipline. The study concludes that competencies that relate to interpersonal leadership skills are key for effectiveness, particularly building trust amongst followers. However, leaders in conservation are not showing these to the same extent as they are showing more technical skills. Future conservation training schemes should incorporate these competencies to ensure leaders are effective. Greater understanding can help inform conservation professionals who wish to invest in leadership development schemes to improve effectiveness across conservation initiatives.