Whether one defines leaders in Machiavellian terms or in more progressive ways, a small number of them has had a disproportionate effect on our world. One reason these special people stand out is that multiple leadership qualities rarely manifest themselves in a single individual.
Opportunities to lead occur in politics, the military, schools, churches, businesses, sports, and elsewhere, and in each arena, the scarcity of accomplished leaders is evident. Good leadership is uncommon, and unfortunately, training people to lead is an ill-defined process.
Some people believe that leaders are born and not developed. Others think that leadership qualities can be cultivated. Certainly, many leadership traits are innate, evidencing themselves in select individuals from the moment they are old enough to impose their wills on others. A lot of leadership, however, has to do with knowledge and experience. Unquestionably, leadership is more than a congenital phenomenon.
Identifying the qualities that leaders have in common is complicated by the civilization process itself. In earlier times, the masses hailed figures like Napoleon Bonaparte and Genghis Khan not because of their evenhandedness, but rather for the determination they displayed and the results they obtained. Ruthlessness and eccentricity were part of such leaders’ ways, and their followers expected them to be autocratic.
Modern followers, on the other hand, hold their leaders to different standards. Twenty-first-century chiefs must convince, cajole, negotiate, and compromise in order to gain the favor of a majority. And even then, their followings are short-lived.
In spite of the complexity of the enterprise, identifying the characteristics that reside in good leaders is worthwhile. Here are some of the qualities that leaders have in common:
Leadership quality #1. Knowledge and experience
A housing contractor once told me that having unskilled laborers on a construction site only works if at least one person present knows what to do. This observation applies anytime a group of people strives toward the accomplishment of a task. Someone must know the ropes, and knowledge and experience empower that person to lead the group.
Leadership quality #2. Confidence
True leaders have extraordinarily high levels of self-confidence. Such self-assuredness runs deeper than superficial cockiness, and it allows leaders to cause groups of people to reach goals synergistically, achieving effects that are superior to the sums of individual efforts.
Leadership quality #3. Going first
One of the remarkable things about Alexander the Great was that he physically led his men into battle without regard for his own safety. Once, he jumped alone from the top of a fortress wall to the ground on the inside, and his men scrambled to follow him for fear that he would be killed by the enemy. His focus was entirely on winning, and he was often present at the point of attack. This willingness to take any risk he expected his men to take made his rank and file amenable to obeying his orders without hesitation.
Leadership quality #4. Taking risks
Leaders who take no risks go down in history as having lost battles or failed to bring their people through crises. Sure, some risk-taking leaders lose their bets, but most of the great leaders of history made some kind of wager and won.
Leadership quality #5. Creativity
Good leaders use all of the tools available to them to accomplish their ends. Some of them are particularly talented at listening to counselors’ advice and recognizing its value. They then add their own twists to make the advice useful for solving the problems at hand.
Leadership quality #6. Ideas
Leaders need not be geniuses, but thinking out of the box is a quality that many of them possess. They are not constrained by the attitudes of others. True leaders have original ideas, recognize the sound thinking of advisors, and are able to apply novel approaches to the real world in which they live.
Leadership quality #7. Understanding subordinates’ abilities
Natural leaders recognize their subordinates’ value and give them their heads as long as things are moving in the right direction. At the same time, they instinctively know when to intervene to encourage higher levels of performance or to change things that are going awry.
Leadership quality #8. Vision
Good leaders are like chess players—they view various scenarios and visualize the possible results of their decisions. The best leaders are visionaries on a variety of levels. They envisage subordinates’ rolls as well as the overall tasks to be accomplished. Their visions include big-picture destinations as well as detailed plans for the things that must be done along the way.
Leadership quality #9. Personal code
All excellent leaders have personal codes of conduct that control their behavior. For their leadership roles to be sustainable, the codes must be real. If they’re not, subordinates eventually defect.
Leadership quality #10. Goal setting
True leaders are natural goal-setters who constantly massage their lists of long-term and short-term objectives. They may make modifications to their lists and to the time frames for accomplishing the tasks on them, but the lists themselves are integral to their ways of operation.
Leadership quality #11. Communication skills
Many leaders are excellent public speakers, and all of them excel at communicating their wishes to those around them. Their self-confidence, charisma, and knowledge assist them in their dealings with peers, subordinates, and opposition.
Leadership quality #12. Remaining above the fray
Good leaders maintain a psychological distance from those under them, refusing to stoop to petty squabbles or other degrading talk or actions. Those who violate this rule lose the aura that surrounds them and much of their leadership oomph.
Leadership quality #13. Character
Leaders must have enough genuine character to garner the respect of those around them. Those with weak characters, like Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi and Uganda’s Idi Amin, may remain in charge for a time, but eventually their failings catch up to them, and the people reject their authority.
Leadership quality #14. Enthusiasm
In order to lead effectively, those in charge must possess high levels of enthusiasm. Positive energy is contagious and motivates everyone on the team.
Leadership quality #15. Calmness
Real leaders expect to encounter shifting circumstances and are steadfast when things go south. A sense of being the right person at the right time buoys them up through rough seas, and they calmly address the problems that confront them.
Leadership quality #16. Focus
Natural leaders are focused in ways that give them advantages over those who are not. Some observers see this as narcissism and declare that the focus stems from self-centeredness. Whether you believe that or not, the role of focus in the success of leaders is undeniable.
Leadership quality #17. Loyalty
Just as subordinates are to be loyal to their leaders, leaders owe loyalty in return. This fidelity comes in many forms and is built into some institutions. For instance, members of the United States Marine Corps form their chow lines in inverse order of rank, with privates first and generals last. If the food runs out or gets cold, the senior officers suffer the consequences.
Leadership quality #18. Making order out of chaos
Many people are unable to visualize what a run-down house would look like fixed up. Contractors who accurately envisage the final product make the money. The same is true for leaders. The good ones are able to approach chaotic situations, compartmentalize the problems, and give rational instructions that achieve order.
Leadership quality #19. Adaptability
Good leaders are like athletic coaches—they make tactical changes as they see the circumstances unfolding. The best leaders adopt strategic plans that are solid, but within those overall visions, they are able to adapt tactically and use all the tools at their disposals to move forward.
Leadership quality #20. Fairness
People are often willing to work incredibly hard and make great sacrifices, if they perceive their leadership to be fair. Much of followers’ loyalty toward their leaders comes from this perception.
Leadership quality #21. Bravery
True leaders are willing to face the opposition (marketplace, enemy army, board of directors, natural disaster, opposing team) personally. In a crunch, they rally their troops and scrap for a victory.
Leadership quality #22. Charisma
Charisma is a salient quality of most good leaders. Folks naturally follow those who possess this hard-to-put-your-finger-on characteristic.
Leadership quality #23. Preparedness
The best leaders are highly organized and know that being prepared is a key aspect of success. They anticipate what their followers will need in order to accomplish the tasks before them, and they insist on preparedness at all levels of their operations.
Leadership quality #24. Simplification
Outstanding leaders give simple orders that their followers are able to understand and execute. The ability to break down complex tasks into simpler ones is a hallmark of a good leader.
I have no doubt that you will think of other leadership qualities that might be included on this list. I invite you to comment on any aspect of the topic that interests you.