Learn About the Top Leadership Qualities

Authentic leader talking to employee
••• GettyImages/Caiaimage/John Wildgoose

When it comes to learning about the qualities of great leaders, there are endless lists, articles, books, research studies, and competency models to reference. So many, in fact, that it is overwhelming to anyone aspiring to learn about leadership and how to become a better leader.

To complicate things, leadership is a difficult term to define, much like the concept of strategy. Ask a room full of executives to define both of these terms and you can expect a wide and exciting variety of definitions. 

The common qualities of effective and ineffective leaders

In workshops and breakout sessions, we ask participants to describe the attributes and behaviors of leaders they admire. We also ask them to describe the behavior of leaders they have encountered who they believe have been less than effective. While we strive to avoid using the label lousy leaders for this latter group, those are the ones we are really asking about. 

As you might imagine, the lists that emerge for effective and ineffective leaders are generally consistent from group to group. We know a good leader when we encounter one and we know the lousy leader when they darken our days. 

The key attributes described by program participants for effective leaders include:

  • Treats everyone with respect
  • Actions match words
  • Teaches
  • Challenges us to be our best
  • Coaches
  • Supports our development
  • Communicates constantly
  • Shares the big picture and works with us on the details

The key attributes for those less than effective leaders include:

  • Micromanages 
  • Is arrogant or aloof or both
  • Criticizes without foundation
  • Communicates infrequently and ineffectively
  • Never clarifies the big picture and definitely doesn't work with us

The top ten leadership qualities of effective leaders:

We value the input of these session participants and have factored them into our personal “ten best” list of leadership qualities. Our list is purely opinion and it is based on our ample experience coaching and developing leaders. We are willing to bet it’s pretty darn descriptive of the great leaders that you’ve encountered in your career as well. 

  1. Effective leaders bring out the best in others: Great leaders don’t just get extraordinary results as a result of their own contributions. They have the ability to elevate the performance of everyone around them. They believe that everyone has untapped potential to grow and improve, and give people the confidence to achieve their own goals.
  2. The best leaders inspire with their words and actions: Great leaders have bold visions and audacious goals, but they also have the ability to communicate in a way that inspires others to act. They appeal to people’s emotions, using an image, stories, metaphors, and other ways that move people to action. They involve others in order to give people a sense of ownership and control. And they never ask people to do something that they would not do themselves. 
  1. Great leaders are genuine and authentic: These leaders know who they are and they are not afraid to let others see their core values, their strengths, and their weaknesses. They are transparent and let everyone know in a way that is seen as “real” and genuine.
  2. Effective leaders have a professional presence: Great leaders have a way of being “in the moment”, both in a group setting (on stage) and in individual interactions. They pay attention, listen, ask great questions, and make everyone feel like there are being heard and valued. When they do speak up, they command attention – everyone pauses and pays attention.
  1. Good leaders can be trusted and they trust others: Effective leaders inspire trust. They say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they promise to do. They are also trusting of others – not in a naïve way, but they will assume you can be trusted until you prove otherwise.
  2. They preach and practice accountability: The best leaders are accountable to their team members and stakeholders. They admit their own mistakes and they never point fingers or make excuses. They also hold others accountable.
  1. Great leaders drive great results: They set bold visions and audacious goals and armed with a carefully selected group of key performance indicators and metrics, they never take their eyes off the target. They are relentless in achieving goals. They celebrate the successes of their team members and they help everyone feel like winners.
  2. They are positive and confident: Great leaders have the ability to balance optimism, passion, and confidence, without ignoring reality, and letting their confidence turn into hubris. They can also energize others – instead of draining the energy of others around them. They create penguins instead of polar bears.
  1. Effective leaders drive change: While this somewhat overlaps with results-focused and inspiring, they also understand the dynamics of organizational and individual change. They also effectively manage their own reactions to change.
  2. They empower others: Great leaders are comfortable delegating. They push decisions down to the lowest level, and they understand the motivational power of giving people control. They don’t hoard or abuse their power, they give it away freely.

The Bottom Line:

When you have the opportunity to work for a leader who displays the qualities described above, pay close attention and learn. These lessons offer priceless guidance as you strive to grow into the type of leader people describe positively in workshops and seminars!