Leaders come in many forms, whether you’re an ambitious, chin-up, speeches-at-the-podium kind of leader, or an unassuming, humble, and reluctant leader. If people are drawn to you, believe in you, and want to help you fulfill your purpose because it has become their purpose, too, you possess some of the most effective leadership qualities.
John Maxwell, a leadership expert and best-selling author, said, “Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.” Go down the list of the greatest leaders of all time: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, George Washington, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Malala Yousafzai, and Oprah Winfrey—all led in different moments in history, with different visions and ideals, but had one thing in common: influence.
If you have a purpose that’s communicated honestly, and live with values that are clear to the people around you, you’re already acting as an influential leader. A great leader has strong communication skills, the ability to motivate and inspire others, good decision-making abilities, and a clear purpose and vision for the future. Leaders also display integrity, empathy, and the ability to build and maintain positive relationships.
Additionally, they strive to improve themselves and their skills by seeking new information and engaging in self-reflection constantly. Their role is viewed as a continuous learning process, with a greater vision always in mind.
In this article, you’ll learn about the top leadership qualities that create positive relationships, respect among colleagues and community members, and an impactful influence.
What Are the Traits of a Good Leader?
While every great leader has a unique combination of team leadership skills and qualities, there are several universal traits that grow positive influence. When consistently developing these characteristics, leaders will quickly and organically gain followers.
- Serves others before themselves
- Defines their vision and mission clearly
- Works toward fulfilling their purpose
- Inspires and motivates those around them
- Takes accountability when the team fails
- Has a high level of emotional intelligence
- Is a strategic, innovative thinker
- Stays positive and humble
- Builds a sense of community
- Remains a learner for life
7 of the Most Important Leadership Qualities
1. Acts as a Servant Leader
Servant leaders humbly serve the needs of their clients, employees, mentees, and community—creating an infinite cycle of positive influence that develops more servant leaders. They drop self-interests and determine success by how many lives they’ve changed for the better.
Servant leaders are unassuming, empathetic, and people-oriented. They focus on building community and multiplying leaders with their positive influence. Additionally, these leaders provide mentorship, nurture the personal and professional development of community members, give guidance, and recognize a person’s full potential even before they see it in themselves.
While the concept of servant leadership is timeless, dating back to humble leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa, the term “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay entitled The Servant as Leader. In his essay, Greenleaf explains that the highest priority of servant leaders is making sure that other people’s needs are being served, and in doing so, those served become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become leaders themselves.
To act as a servant leader, you must:
- Persuade with positive influence: Unlike traditional leaders who have top-down command, servant leaders guide with influence and persuasion by building positive, trusting, and authentic relationships with people.
- Develop people: A servant leader recognizes a person’s full potential and uses motivation, encouragement, and inspiration to help them achieve it and become the best versions of themselves.
- Earn trust: Servant leaders earn trust by being honest, reliable, and genuine. They eliminate self-interested behaviors and focus on serving others, leading as an example of ethics and values.
- Have strong emotional intelligence: Great leaders have emotional intelligence—an ability to understand and relate to people’s emotions. High levels of emotional intelligence enable better communication and empathy, two factors that help build trust in others.
A contemporary example of a servant leader is Jack Ma, philanthropist, and co-founder of Alibaba Group, one of the world’s largest retailers and e-commerce companies. In 2010, Ma earmarked 0.3% of Alibaba’s revenue to various causes. Four years later, he started the Jack Ma Foundation, which creates non-profit organizations focused on education, women’s leadership, medical support, environmental protection, and entrepreneurship. “People say I am one of the richest people in China, but I don’t think it is my money,” Ma said. “It is money that people have entrusted to you, and you want to spend it in a better, smarter way.”
2. Leads With Purpose
In Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why, he explains that leading with your why has the power to transform any business or organization for the better, and is what helps leaders to gain followers. When people are inspired by a leader’s purpose or message, they feel emotionally compelled to follow them and become part of the collective vision. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe,” Sinek writes.
To vocalize your purpose clearly and gain followers, define your vision, or mental picture of what could be when you put in the passion and work. A life vision will fire you up to take action, allowing you to lead by example and inspire the people around you to get involved, too.
Find your inspirational purpose by:
- Reflecting on your values and beliefs to understand what matters most to you and what you want to stand for.
- Assessing your strengths and passion to identify areas where you can make a meaningful contribution.
- Considering the needs of others to make a positive impact by serving others.
- Setting clear and ambitious goals to stay motivated on the path to achieving your purpose.
- Seeking guidance and mentorship when your path forward feels unclear.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary leader who clearly communicated his purpose, which motivated people to join his cause. In his I Have a Dream speech, King defined his purpose, saying, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” By being incredibly detailed in his language and painting a clear picture of a better future, his followers felt inspired to make sacrifices to turn that vision into a reality.
3. Establishes Ethical Behavior
A leader’s ethical values are the set of moral guiding principles that determines how they conduct themselves and their business. Great leaders serve as positive examples for their team, employees, customers, and community members, which allows them to gain respect and influence. Displaying core values such as integrity, fairness, honesty, and kindness, will allow leaders to gain trust and create a positive work culture with greater teamwork, employee morale, and productivity.
Additionally, ethical leaders make decisions using a strong moral compass, leading to actions that are in the best interest of the entire team, plus customers, stakeholders, and the community at large.
To establish ethical behavior, you must consistently:
- Develop a strong moral compass, or understanding of values, that guides your decision-making and helps you to stay true to your principles.
- Communicate transparently by being open and honest when sharing information.
- Lead by example by demonstrating ethical behavior in all interactions and inspiring others to do the same.
- Encourage open dialogue and actively seek out different perspectives to help you make informed decisions.
- Take responsibility for your actions and be accountable when you make mistakes by admitting them and taking steps to correct them.
- Foster a culture of ethics by establishing clear guidelines and ensuring that they are communicated throughout your organization.
- Act with empathy and compassion toward others, trying to understand different perspectives and needs.
Abraham Lincoln was known for his honesty, integrity, and sense of justice—all important leadership qualities. He consistently made decisions based on what he believed to be right, even when those decisions were deeply unpopular or politically risky. He was able to bring people together during a time of separation because of the way he treated others with kindness and respect, even during disagreements. To his wife, Lincoln said, “Do good to those who hate you and turn their ill will to friendship.” He proved to maintain that mindset toward political opponents throughout his time in leadership.
4. Solves Complex Problems
One of the most important leadership qualities is excellent problem-solving skills. Leaders are often faced with complex challenges that require critical thinking and effective decision-making.
The most effective leaders are able to analyze situations, identify the root causes of problems, and develop effective solutions that are implemented smoothly. Leaders must also anticipate and mitigate potential problems before they occur and lead their teams in a strategic manner.
The key to problem-solving is having an effective process in place, which may include:
- Defining the problem: Get to the root of a problem by clearly and specifically identifying the issues. Great leaders find the epicenter of an issue before it’s able to damage the company.
- Brainstorming and researching solutions: True leaders take time to break down a problem and brainstorm solutions. This is a good time for collaboration among team members who have learned from your strategic skills and can provide alternative solutions.
- Develop an action plan: After brainstorming potential solutions, a great leader is able to choose the best option and put it into action quickly. A detailed action plan should include the “who,” “what,” “when,” “why,” and “how,” allowing you to visualize the entire process and delegate the necessary tasks to your team.
One of Steve Jobs’ most well-known leadership qualities was his problem-solving skills. He was constantly looking for simple ways to solve complex problems, often using his own three-step method.
- First, he would zoom out to get a clear view of the big picture.
- Then he’d focus in on defining the problem and concentrate on fixing it.
- Finally, he would disconnect from the issue in order to clear his mind and return reenergized.
5. Communicates Effectively
Recent research by Grammarly and The Harris Poll found that poor workplace communication burdens businesses and employees alike, causing an estimated $1.2 trillion annual loss among U.S. businesses.
Today, company leaders are in charge of engaging with employees, customers, and stakeholders across new digital platforms. A missed opportunity can cause giant losses, and hinder workplace engagement and productivity, too.
Clear and efficient communication is an impactful leadership quality because it ensures that tasks are completed correctly and on time. It also promotes better understanding and cooperation among team members and helps identify and resolve issues before they escalate into major conflicts.
To communicate more effectively, do this:
- Practice active listening: Focus fully on understanding what others are saying, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.
- Speak clearly and concisely: Use simple language and be direct and to the point when giving directions, avoiding ambiguity or confusion.
- Be open and transparent: Prioritize being honest and transparent and keeping team members informed about decisions, progress, and setbacks.
- Show empathy and understanding: Focus on being able to understand and relate to the perspectives and feelings of others by asking people questions and reflecting on their answers. Create an environment in which people feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns.
- Provide regular feedback: Give employees both positive and constructive feedback frequently to help them improve and grow. Seek feedback in return and take it seriously.
Jay Shetty is a former monk who has become a successful motivational speaker and host of On Purpose, which has well over 50 million podcast downloads. He is known for his ability to communicate complex ideas and emotions in a simple and engaging way. Shetty connects with his audience by speaking to their struggles authentically. He’s open and honest and builds trust with his listeners by describing his own life experiences. “When you learn how to communicate with yourself, you’re learning to be empathetic and understanding,” Shetty explains. “You’re learning to validate your own feelings and appreciate what it is that you’re truly looking for.”
6. Normalizes Vulnerability
Vulnerability is an important leadership quality because it allows for a more authentic and transparent relationship with team members, which fosters trust and open communication. Being vulnerable helps a leader connect with people on a deeper level, and understand the perspectives and needs of their employees, customers, and community members.
Being a vulnerable leader means:
- Admitting to mistakes and asking for help when you need it.
- Taking responsibility for your actions and inspiring others to do the same.
- Creating a safe and trusting environment.
- Building a culture of accountability.
- Engaging in tough, open conversations.
- Living your values, even when it’s harder than being silent.
- Being reliable and following through on commitments.
Brené Brown, researcher and author of best-seller Dare to Lead, has shown that vulnerability is not a weakness, but rather a strength and sign of courageousness that can create deeper connections and more effective leadership. When faced with a challenge, people typically choose to “armor up” or protect themselves from these feelings, she says. Instead, Brown shows that great leaders “rumble with vulnerability” in order to create deeper connections. In a TedTalk lecture on the power of vulnerability, Brown explains, “Connection is why we’re here; it gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
7. Commits to Life-Long Learning
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” These words were written in a speech that President John F. Kennedy prepared, but never had the opportunity to give. This phrase still rings true when it comes to the top leadership qualities a person needs for success. Great leaders commit to a life of learning and growth because it benefits the organization and those it serves. A dedication to learning allows leaders to stay in tune with the latest trends, technologies, and best practices in their field, enabling them to develop new skills and knowledge that can be applied to their work.
Simon Sinek says that great leaders are constantly seeking more information about how to be effective and grow within their roles. “If you choose this lifestyle, you have to become a student. I’ve never met a great leader who thinks of themselves as an expert,” he describes in an interview.
Commit to constant learning and leadership development by:
- Reading books, essays, and articles related to leadership.
- Joining networking groups related to your field of interest.
- Surrounding yourself with inspirational, value-driven people.
- Bolstering your spiritual growth.
- Asking questions and listening to answers.
- Engaging in constant self-reflection.
Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has demonstrated a strong commitment to learning and personal development throughout his career. He is known for reading and encourages his employees to do the same. He also invites experimentation and taking risks, allowing for the rapid innovation that takes place at Amazon. Investments like Blue Origin, a space exploration company, are perceived as a long-term learning opportunity and serve as an example of Bezos pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with knowledge and innovation. An article published in Fortune states, “Innovators like Bezos see the world as a laboratory. They continually seek to answer those ‘what-if’ questions as they search for new solutions.”
Leadership Qualities Are Learned Over Time
Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.” It’s a common question that many aspirational leaders ask themselves: “Are leaders born or made?“
Research suggests that most leadership qualities are learned over time, and with a growth mindset and dedication to personal development, people can be molded into great leaders.
Perhaps the most underemphasized quality of a great leader is an unyielding appetite for learning. When a person is continually reaching for a higher level of self-understanding and exploring the best ways to approach challenges, they are displaying emotional maturity—a quality that’s essential for great leaders.
To be a great leader, learn something new about your profession and yourself every day. Read books, listen to podcasts and lectures, observe how other leaders handle challenges and daily interactions—be a perpetual student.
To get started, pick up one of these leadership books that will leave you feeling inspired to dive deeper into your personal and professional journey.
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- Doebele, J. (2019, December 2). Jack Ma Outlines Bold Vision For His Philanthropy Foundation. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jdoebele/2019/12/02/jack-ma-shares-his-plans-for-education-philanthropy-in-china/?sh=4264ecf65c7f
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