What makes someone the kind of leader people want to follow? According to leadership expert and best-selling author of 5 Levels of Leadership, John Maxwell, the answer revolves around influence. “Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flowcharts,” he writes in Becoming a Person of Influence. “It is about one life influencing another.” While every great leader has a unique combination of leadership skills and leadership qualities, there are 26 universal traits that grow positive influence. When consistently developing these characteristics, leaders will quickly and organically gain followers.
Top Leadership Traits
- Knows the way, shows the way, and goes the way
- Serves others before themselves
- Defines their vision and mission clearly
- Works toward fulfilling their purpose
- Inspires and motivates others
- 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
26 of the Best Leadership Traits
1. Acts as a Servant Leader
Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy actively instilled servant leadership, one of the top qualities of a good leader, into his business. Above all, servant leaders operate by ensuring they humbly serve the needs of their clients, employees, and community. By dropping self-interests, they ethically guide their organizations. In doing so, they positively influence those around them. As Cathy explained, “Nearly every moment of every day, we have the opportunity to give something to someone else—our time, our love, our resources.”
2. Defines the Company’s Vision and Mission
Those in high-level leadership positions are responsible for clearly defining the company’s vision and mission. Vision focuses on the business’s big picture objectives, while mission describes what the organization is doing now to make these goals achievable. When developing business initiatives, quality leaders within the company must have a mission statement and a vision statement they can reference. As Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of Notre Dame University, said: “The very essence of leadership is [that] you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” Additionally, it helps leaders unify the purpose of the business with those who work there.
3. Leads with Purpose
Practicing servant leadership and having a clearly defined vision and mission are leadership qualities of purpose-driven people. Purpose serves just causes that are higher than any single person, which is why a team can get behind one vision and mission. Statistically speaking, companies with purpose outrank businesses without one in almost every single way. Their customers are more loyal, they make more money, they retain top talent and their teams are more productive and engaged.
4. Establishes Ethical Behavior
So, what are ethical values? Outlining employee expectations for things like honesty, integrity, and respect isn’t enough when it comes to developing a team culture that fosters positive working conditions. One of the top qualities of an effective leader is consistently serving as a positive example for those within the organization. By doing so, a business owner, executive, or manager gains respect and admiration, thus proving they’re worth following and modeling.
5. Multiplies Leaders
One of the biggest goals of a person practicing leadership trait number one—servant leadership—is multiplying leaders at all levels. As the great leadership expert and best-selling author John C. Maxwell puts it in The Leader’s Greatest Return, “Developing leaders gives a return to others. Developing leaders gives a return to the leaders. Developing leaders gives a return to the developer.” Whether providing mentorship or offering new opportunities for growth, leadership skills development is a top priority for successful organizations.
6. Expresses Passion
Passion is the bright light that draws people to an organization. As Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, says, “True passion attracts. If you have passion in your business, the right people will be attracted to your team.” The energy levels and body language of passionate leaders change when they speak about their company’s purpose. These paralinguistic cues communicate belief, conviction, and confidence to audiences. Through passion, leaders create buy-in which, as a result, gains them followers.
7. Improves Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence (EI) is one of the most growable characteristics on the leadership attributes list. EI provider TalentSmart® found that “emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance, explaining a full 58% of success in all types of jobs.” Unlike a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ), a person’s emotional quotient (EQ), which measures their EI, can grow over time. All in all, there are four quadrants of EI, which include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. For example, a person can increase their empathy by studying social awareness. Training programs, books, podcasts, lectures, and online videos can all specifically assist in helping leaders grow their EI and EQ.
8. Thinks Strategically
Strategic thinking is one of the most critical leadership traits because it sets the team up for goal achievement. Without it, those within the organization cannot work with intent, which results in wasted time, energy, and money. Because of this, accomplishing large-scale goals requires daily planning and preparation. A visualization practice increases a leader’s focus on what direction the team needs to move in. Furthermore, having strategy days sets aside time for creating the company’s initiatives. Additionally, plans require consistent monitoring in terms of progress. Making adaptations as needed is also an important facet of analyzing the success of the strategy.
9. Solves Complex Problems
Problem-solving comes into play when a goal gets blocked from achievement. Those practicing great leadership don’t let problems fester and get worse. Instead, they strategically find a resolution. For example, the problem-solving process starts by reviewing the goal, analyzing the root cause, researching the problem, and developing a list of solutions. After this is done, the leader makes a decision and creates a plan of attack. Finally, they monitor the success of the new solution, making any required changes.
10. Teaches Decision-Making
In addition to making good strategic decisions by using the two previous leadership qualities listed, leaders should also teach these principles to their team. As the founder of North Point Ministries Andy Stanley says, “Leadership isn’t about making all the decisions. It is making sure the right decisions are made.” In essence, this means equipping team members with the tools needed for decision-making. Furthermore, teaching team members a great model for this empowers employees. Additionally, this frees up time and energy spent putting out fires or getting involved in others’ work.
11. Communicates Effectively
“The Cost of Poor Communication,” a study on 400 businesses with over 100,000 employees, found that ineffective communication costs each company a staggering $62.4 million every year. At work, great communication starts by setting employees up for as much success as possible. For instance, good communication skills include identifying clear goals and KPIs. Additionally, the best communicators connect by sharing a common vision, inspiring their team, asking questions, actively listening, and speaking with respect for others.
12. Practices Accountability
Leaders who take ownership of both their responsibilities and the team’s success demonstrate one of the most important characteristics and attributes of a leader: accountability. Retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink writes in his best-seller, Extreme Ownership, “The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.” In doing so, the person teaches their team what accountability looks like in action.
13. Normalizes Vulnerability
A trusting relationship built by the organization’s leaders lets the team feel like they can be honest and transparent with one another. For instance, vulnerability helps people develop the communication skills to admit when they need support. It also holds team members accountable without it being viewed as a reprimand. Additionally, it might mean admitting mistakes, lacking knowledge, and fearing failure. Through vulnerability, people feel safe to truly be themselves, which builds strong bonds among those working together.
14. Focuses on the Company’s Long-Term Vision
Business owners and CEOs are different from managers and company employees. They work on the business, rather than in it. In essence, this means they’re always thinking ahead by keeping their focus on the company’s future. This ensures the team consistently plays an offensive game. As best explained by Jack Welsh, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”
15. Builds an “A” Team
A CEO fulfills their vision by building a team of talented, committed individuals who are attracted to fulfilling the organization’s mission. Creating synergy among team members is also an executive leader’s responsibility when building an “A” team. As Andrew Carnegie states, “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” For this reason, it’s important leaders consider how job candidates contribute to the company and team culture.
16. Creates a Safe, Trusting Environment
Leadership expert and world-renowned public speaker Simon Sinek explains that leaders are responsible for creating safe work environments that foster trust. “It is a leader’s responsibility to set an environment. Leadership is not about being in charge—leadership is about taking care of those in your charge . . . The job of leadership is to create trusting teams,” he explains in a video posted on his YouTube channel. Sinek says this is a long-term, infinite practice rather than a finite goal with a target date of completion. Despite how long the process takes for each individual on the team, the daily commitment of building trust develops strong companies.
17. Encourages Innovation
Research conducted by McKinsey & Company shows that 94% of senior executives consider people and corporate culture as the top factors leading to innovation at work. When leaders build the right team and the right environment, employees feel safe setting higher goals without the fear of the repercussions of failure. Additionally, creativity and unique solutions flourish when CEOs and executives encourage and empower their teams to problem-solve outside the box.
18. Grows Followers Through Influence
Another quality of an effective leader is the ability to inspire others through influence, rather than demanding authority. Instead of abusing their power, inspirational leaders focus on positively influencing those they serve. In doing so, they set an example for their followers to do the same. A purpose-driven movement within an organization cannot be built without followers, and followers aren’t gained by force. As discussed above, motivating collective action is done by serving others and sharing a collective vision that emotionally compels people to accomplish.
19. Delegates Responsibilities
Entrepreneurs growing their companies from scratch often wear all the hats in the beginning. But, when an organization starts growing, a person needs a team that can free up their time so they can focus on the business. This means delegating responsibilities and control over various projects and tasks. For example, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, attributes delegation as one of the most important leadership qualities all business owners need. “If you really want to grow as an entrepreneur, you’ve got to learn to delegate,” he says.
20. Commits to Learning and Development
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” These words were written in a speech President John F. Kennedy prepared but never got to give. This phrase still rings true when it comes to the top leadership attributes a person needs for success. Great leaders commit to a life of learning and growth because it benefits the organization and those it serves. Whether it’s expanding leadership traits by talking to a mentor, listening to a podcast, reading a book, or going to a conference, there are always ample opportunities for growth each day.
21. Drives Team Motivation
Fulfilling a grand vision can take years or even decades. For this reason, leaders must serve as a source of motivation for their team. Military leader Napoleon Bonaparte described the quality of good leaders as “dealers in hope.” This means that, despite the difficulty of the mission, a leader inspires and motivates their team toward a positive outcome. One of the best examples of this is found in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s statement issued before the American troops stormed Normandy. “Your task will not be an easy one . . . But this is the year 1944! . . . The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle,” he writes.
22. Holds a Positive Mindset
Best-selling leadership author Napoleon Hill was a huge advocate for a positive mindset. Through studying hundreds of successful people, he found positivity was one of the top characteristics of great leaders. When explaining what makes a person positive, he says: “A positive mind finds a way it can be done; A negative mind looks for all the ways it can’t be done.” Positivity helps leaders adapt, rather than dwell in failure or mistakes. When leaders act and speak positively, it influences team members to see opportunity in the face of adversity.
23. Remains Resilient
As Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, once put it, “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” For this reason, having the leadership attribute mentioned above helps business owners keep fighting during tough times or business hardships. Patience, a strategic mind, change management skills and a positive attitude are all examples of resilience that help company leaders guide their team through stormy waters.
24. Stays Humble, Despite Success
Being humble is one of the best qualities of great leaders—it shows the will to serve others more than oneself. Additionally, it demonstrates a gracious, appreciative, nature that is focused on treating people with kindness and respect. Humility also means admitting you don’t know everything. Those who are humble seek knowledge and wisdom from others who can teach them how to be a better leader. Having a mentor or accountability partner helps leaders stay grounded as they grow in their success.
25. Builds Community
One of the greatest leadership qualities is community building. Organizations that make a powerful impact on the world around them give back and serve as many people as possible. For example, in 2012, Airbnb started OpenHomes, which connects homeowners to people in need of temporary housing. Additionally, the company takes on operational costs for the program. They also donate millions of dollars each year to those who need roofs over their heads. This act of service builds bonds across various communities and fulfills their mission: “to help create a world where you can belong anywhere and where people can live in a place, instead of just traveling to it.”
26. Has a People-Oriented Approach
Those who demonstrate the people-oriented leadership style prioritize interpersonal relationships. They understand that human connection and positive influence are what make successful companies tick. Those who use this approach create a business culture where collaboration, radical candor, honesty, empathy, and open communication are the status quo. As such, employees feel safe to express themselves and do their best work. This leads to higher levels of engagement, productivity, job retention, and innovation.
Next Steps in Developing Leadership Qualities
Becoming a great leader is an infinite journey. It is a role that requires consistent development and growth throughout time. To get started on increasing the skills above:
- Choose five leadership traits to expand upon over the next month.
- Jumpstart this process by checking out the best leadership books and business podcasts.
- Research additional material for developing these as leadership strengths.
- Create a list of resources for growth.
- Pencil in time for each book, video, workshop, or any other materials listed.
- Work on achieving the monthly goal each day.
- Repeat the process.