“If you can become the leader you ought to be on the inside, you will be able to become the person you want on the outside. People will want to follow you. And when that happens, you’ll be able to tackle anything in this world.” — John C. Maxwell, Leadership author and speaker
In a nutshell, effective leaders are men and women of character (who we are) and competence (what we can do). Obviously it’s hard to narrow down the qualities to one encompassing list, but I have pulled together a list of 20 qualities that can serve as a good starting place.
I compiled the list by drawing from multiple very credible sources: Kouzes and Posner and their extensive leadership research documented in their book The Leadership Challenge; the ground breaking research by Jim Collins on long-term successful organizations summarized in the book Good to Great; the work of the late Warren Bennis, widely considered as one of the leading experts on leadership ever produced, and other experts including Brian Tracy.
Twenty Qualities (Traits) of Effective Leaders
The following list is not in any particular order. There is some overlap between the qualities and certainly a synergistic effect if a leader possesses all of these traits.
1) Visionary (Direction). Effective leaders have a sense of purpose and direction for where they want to lead the organization (team). They have an inspiring vision for a better future for the team. And they can answer the “Big Why” (i.e. Why should we change —move from “here” to “there”).
2) Trustworthy. This quality scored the highest in a Gallup survey of what followers wanted from their leaders. Trust is built through relationships and is the foundation for a leader working effectively with her team.
3) Positive Expectations. The best leaders are optimists who spread their optimism to their teams. Napoleon said that, “Leaders are dealers in hope.” People will tend to rise up to the positive expectations that leaders set for them, especially if there are good relationships in place.
4) Results Oriented. The most effective leaders focus on achieving worthwhile results. Ken Blanchard was right when he said, “People who produce good results feel good about themselves.” One of my cardinal principles is, “Success breeds success.” When positive results are achieved and celebrated, positive momentum is created and teams are inspired to experience more success.
5) Integrity and Honesty. Kouzes and Posner have been surveying people about what they desire in leaders for two decades. Consistently ranking at the top is “honesty” (which is closely akin to Integrity). Integrity includes walking the talk and always seeking to do right. Proverbs 10:9 (NIV) advises: “He who walks with integrity walks sincerely, but he who perverts his ways will become known.”
6) Authentic. People are crying out for leaders that are genuine and “real.” In recent times, we have seen scandals in the business world, in politics, even the non-profit world. Being honest and trustworthy, admitting our mistakes, and asking for forgiveness when appropriate helps us build the sense of authenticity that people crave.
One of the best examples of a leader being authentic happened a couple of years ago at our company's all-management meeting. The company was launching an initiative to make safety our company's top priority. Our CEO, Jim Piro, was explaining the safety initiative, but then went off script. Choked with emotion and eyes filled with tears, he said the bottom line was that he wanted all our employees to go home safe every night, and never wanted to make a call to a home that the employee was severely injured, or not coming home at all. I feel the authentic emotion even writing this, and I guarantee the safety message has stuck with all of us who were at that meeting.
7) Inspiring. Successful leaders inspire by painting a picture of an appealing better future. And they show how the work done in the present will lead to the attractive desired future. Sebastian Coe wisely points out that, “Inspirational leaders need to have a winning mentality in order to inspire respect. It is hard to trust in the leadership of someone who is half-hearted about their purpose, or only sporadic in focus or enthusiasm.”
8) Compassion and Empathy. A Gallup survey showed that followers have a strong need for their leaders to be compassionate. People want a supervisor who genuinely cares about them individually. Life is tough, and being treated with compassion and empathy is much appreciated.
9) Stability. A Gallup survey also found that one of the key qualities that people want from their leaders is stability. People appreciate leaders that are emotionally stable and not given to mood swings and excessive displays of negative emotions.
10) Hope. Hope is another quality that a Gallup survey found people desired in their leaders. People want hope that the future will be better than the present, and what we are doing now will contribute to creating that better future.
11) Conscientious. I have previously written about the Big 5 Personality traits. The one personality trait that most marks successful leaders is a strong sense of being conscientious. A conscientiousness person is reliable, responsible, organized, dependable and persistent.
12) Confidence and Decisiveness. The most effective leaders have confidence in their abilities and the abilities of their teams. Effective leaders are also decisive. Successful leaders are humble, delegate often and rely on the strengths of others. At the same time, when decisions need to be made effective leaders are decisive and not afraid to make decisions (i.e. the buck stops with them).
13) Enthusiasm and Passion. Enthusiasm is an endearing quality of effective leaders. Walter Chrysler emphasized the importance of enthusiasm when he said, “The real secret of success is enthusiasm.” Ralph Waldo adds, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Passion provides the spark and energy to strive for great achievements. John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza, encourages us to “Concentrate on what you do well, and do it better than anybody else.”
There is a concept called “the shadow of the leader.” People will often follow the example a leader sets – so when we exhibit enthusiasm and passion the people on our teams will tend to follow suit.
14) Courage. People want leaders to be men and women of courage, not driven by fears. This sometimes means that leaders make unpopular decisions, or decided based on values and convictions not popular at the moment. James Allen admonished, “You will never do anything worthwhile in this world without courage.” Winston Churchill adds, “Courage is rightly considered the foremost of the virtues, for upon it, all others depend.”
15) Strategic Thinker/Planner. The best leaders think strategically and can see and explain the big picture. They also understand the concept of stakeholder symmetry and intentionally strive to add value and balance the interests of our key stakeholders – including customers, investors, employees, and the community.
16) Openness/Tolerant of Ambiguity. Openness refers to our ability to be original, creative, curious, daring, and take risks. Being tolerant of ambiguity is important because the real world is full of ambiguities — and leaders need to provide leadership even when things are not totally clear and obvious. In a nutshell, effective leaders have the ability to be flexible within the boundaries of their own values and vision for the team.
17) Communicator. When leaders don’t communicate, the gap gets filled by the rumor mill, which is primarily negative. Effective leaders communicate well so people know direction and how things are going. Gilbert Amelio wisely speaks about the importance of communication skills: “Developing excellent communication skills is absolutely essential to effective leadership. The leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas to transmit a sense of urgency and enthusiasm to others. If a leader can’t get a message across clearly to motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter.”
18) Humor. A sense of humor goes a long way in leadership. Appropriate humor can help create a positive work environment and enhance the feeling of camaraderie. President Dwight D. Eisenhower emphasized the importance of humor by saying, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” Business leader Warren Buffet illustrated his own sense of humor when he quipped, “I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me.”
Robert Half International did a survey and found that 84% of executives feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job. Respondents to a Bell Leadership Institute survey found that a sense of humor was one of the top two desirable traits in leadership.
19) Personal Humility. Jim Collins and his team researched long-term high performing organizations and what made them so successful. One of the common characteristics of these high performing organizations is they were led by “Level 5” leaders. A Level 5 leader is marked by two defining characteristics – personal humility and at the same time an intense professional will.
A level 5 leader is personally humble and not self-absorbed and arrogant. Being humble is attractive to followers and opens the leader up to listen and respond to other’s advice.
20) Intense Professional Will. This is the second key characteristic of a Level 5 leader. In addition to being personally humble, the top leaders possess an intense professional will. They are strongly committed and motivated to lead the organization to achieve worthwhile goals and achieve success. Some classic examples of extreme Level 5 leaders include people like Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Mother Teresa. My most recent two bosses, Kristin Stathis and Bruce Carpenter, are great examples of leaders with a strong drive and professional will, balanced with personal humility.
Making it Personal
How do you stack up compared to this list? Some of these qualities come more naturally to us, but we can all intentionally strive to improve in the areas we currently fall short. As we improve, we will increase our leadership effectiveness — and the people we serve will appreciate the improvements!