Conservation practitioners and academics have highlighted leadership as an important component for conservation programs, but the attributes of effective leaders are not yet clearly defined. We identify a leadership approach that enables a conservation organization to be more effective in achieving positive results. An analysis of successful and unsuccessful species conservation programs consistently reveals contrasting leadership approaches. Successful approaches resonate strongly with both the characteristics of species conservation and established leadership theory in mainstream management literature. We describe the practices identified in successful species conservation programs to provide the basis for a new understanding of conservation leadership using established management theory. The traits of a successful conservation leader include: an ability to share a clear, long-term vision; orientation toward “hands-on” management; an ability to switch thinking between the big picture and the detail; and a willingness to encourage learning, improvement, and receptiveness to alternative solutions. Activities in the conservation sector are typically influenced by factors beyond the control of managers. Conversely, a leadership approach is under managers’ direct control and has an impact on attainment of results. Effective leadership is one factor that should not be left to chance but should be considered seriously for its impact on achievement in biodiversity conservation.