Leadership traits can be difficult to label because leadership itself is so present in our lives that the skill can be hard to pin down and define. Of course, a business needs managers, and managers must know how to lead their teams to successful ends by providing them with the direction, confidence, tools and resources that they need. But what exactly does leadership look like in the modern world?
Here is where things get tricky. Ask a dozen people what leadership looks like to them, and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers. But while leadership is not an exact science, if you listen to enough authoritative voices, they do harmonize over a core set of values.
So to help define the elusive quality that is leadership, we’ve gone through those core values and found 10 leadership traits that have been validated by proven business leaders and other experienced experts.
1. Don’t Deny Your Gut
Instincts don’t always provide a strong foundation for great leadership, but at the same time, it’s foolish to ignore them. Sometimes your intuition is more insightful than a library of leadership tomes.
If you have the experience and the knowledge, then much of your leadership is going to be like muscle memory. That is, you’ll be able to react faster than you can think. That doesn’t mean the thinking is bad, but it’s like what Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.”
2. Seek Smart Help
A myth about leadership is that it comes from one person alone as if they’re somehow touched by divine providence. That’s just not true. Ask any successful leader, and they’ll tell you that they surround themselves with a multitude of perspectives to help steer their decision-making.
This is not a new idea. Diogenes of Sinope lived 400 years before the birth of Christ, and this Greek philosopher noted that “wise leaders generally have wise counselors because it takes a wise person themselves to distinguish them.” Beware the leader who acts without counsel, for they will soon be alone in the wilderness.
3. Be Curious
Anyone can become a leader, but according to a meta-analysis of leadership published in the Harvard Business Review, those who are “more adjusted, sociable, ambitious and curious are much more likely to become leaders.” A well-adjusted, social and ambitious individual is obviously going to rise to a leadership position. That leaders are also curious is, well, curious.
Not if you think about it, though. Curious people seek new solutions to old problems. They are constantly trying out new things, new ideas, and even when they find the answer to one problem, they’re never complacent. Great leaders are tireless in their pursuit of better ways to do things, which means they are keeping their organization innovative and competitive. For more motivation, read our 25 most inspiring leadership quotes.
4. Ask for Opposing Points of View
It’s become cliché that surrounding yourself with yes-men is going to “yes” you to ruin. A leader doesn’t want validation. Constructive criticism is valuable, even if you disagree. That’s because it provides perspective and shows you a problem from a vantage point you might have ignored or overlooked.
The most famous example of this leadership trait is Abraham Lincoln, who assembled a Cabinet whose members had different points of view than the president, sometimes radically so. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that Lincoln wanted to hear strong voices of dissent, encouraged without fear of retaliation. But the final decision, after hearing strong arguments for and against, sat solely with Lincoln.
5. Communicating Is Listening
Leadership is all about communicating. You must communicate your vision. Explain how you’re planning to implement it, so you can inspire those on your team and report to those to whom you’re responsible. All of these are essential communication skills for effective leaders.
But if you’re not listening, then you’re just barking orders, and that is a pathway to failure. Active listening is a leadership trait that was first developed by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson in the 1980s. They argue that listening isn’t a passive activity, but rather listening can change attitudes. Active listening helps people become less defensive and authoritarian, making them more democratic, emotionally mature and open to experience. All of which help a leader rally the troops.
6. Be Confident
According to a study conducted at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2016, “the key to a successful, creative leader is confidence.” Leadership is not only about motivating people, according to the study, but also about coming up with ideas. An abusive leader creates only stress. Confidence, on the other hand, doesn’t need to bolster itself by humiliating others. Confidence leads by creating a collaborative and creative environment.
Naturally, being overly confident is no confidence at all. That’s arrogance, and it falls squarely into the abusive leadership camp. It should obviously be avoided. But staying genuinely positive and confident is contagious and imbues those working for the leader with the same optimistic attitudes that lead to more creative engagement.
Related: How to Be a Good Manager
7. Be a Servant Leader
It sounds like an oxymoron, but servant leadership is an effective managerial style. There’s a long history of servant leaders, such as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jane Goodall. A servant leader may be at the top of the power pyramid, but they share that power, by putting the needs of others ahead of their own and by helping people perform at their best.
In terms of business, this approach creates connections among employees and strengthens relationships, which leads to increased productivity. It gives teams more autonomy and results in buy-in to the project and the confidence and freedom to work successfully. Servant leaders make sure their staff has the resources they need to work hard while avoiding administrative and political hurdles.
8. Have Integrity
More and more people believe that integrity is the true hallmark of a great leader, over competitiveness or other assumed leadership traits. According to a poll conducted in 2016 by Robert Half Management Resources, three-fourths of participants, including workers and management, chose integrity as a top attribute of corporate leaders.
Having integrity sets the right example from the top down, but it also means being transparent with employees and advocating for your team. Integrity is a business asset, too, in that an ethical managerial style attracts investors, customers and talent. Having a trustworthy leader is going to benefit the organization inside and out.
9. Be Decisive
At it’s core, leadership is about making decisions. Hamlet, for example, would make a bad leader. The tragic flaw of this Shakespearean character is indecisiveness. If you don’t want there to be something rotten in your company, you must have a leader who can pull the trigger when the time is right.
Leadership guru Tony Robbins notes that a leader is the one who has to make those difficult decisions. “The ability to be decisive can mean the difference between getting through tough times and folding under pressure,” he writes. Therefore, a leader can’t be a people-pleaser. Some of the decisions will not be well-received by everyone, but good judgment will make sure that they’re overall for the best. That’s one cornerstone for a respected leader.
10. Be Passionate
Some leadership traits can be taught, others learned from experience, but then there are those that are an X factor. They’re not so easily defined. One of these is passion. Passion is inspirational, another X factor, and when someone has it they’re more likely to get people behind them to do anything and everything to enact their vision.
While it might be hard to teach passion, every one of us has something that we feel passionate about. It’s that seed that the leader needs to nourish and let grow. Don’t be ashamed or shy about exhibiting your passion if it’s focused on knowledge and something you care deeply about. It’s infectious and creates an energy that is often just the fuel needed to drive success.
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