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Think back to the best boss you ever had. What were they like? What made them so great?

Odds are, their "X factor" was an embodiment of key leadership traits — ones that inspired, motivated, and empowered everyone around them. It's these traits that transform mediocre leaders into outstanding ones.

→ Click here to download leadership lessons from HubSpot founder, Dharmesh  Shah [Free Guide].

While it feels like some people were naturally born to lead, you can learn, develop, and strengthen leadership skills with practice. Here, let's explore effective versus ineffective leadership traits and strategies for honing your leadership skills.

What Is My Leadership Philosophy?

There are many schools of thought and philosophies about leadership. Amazon has more than 26,000 titles on leadership, and a quick Google search on "leadership" produces almost 3 million results.

All this to say, if you're looking to develop a leadership philosophy, you have a variety of viewpoints to choose from. But which one is best? Which one should you follow? Which one will benefit your company?

We don’t have the answers — but you do.

Only you will know which philosophy fits with your core values. What works for your colleague across town may not work for you. You’re going to have to dig deep inside yourself, do some research, and practice until you get the right combination.

Think of it this way: when you’re creating a plan for a client, you’re constantly weighing which strategies and elements will yield the greatest return. It’s different for each client, each organization, and each goal. You start one way, but invariably you wind up making tweaks and changing variables on the fly.

Leadership is no different. As you become immersed in the topic, you’ll see that there are different strategies, traits, and approaches that you’ll combine in whatever unique way suits your strengths and your goals.

What are leadership qualities?

While many different qualities can contribute to a great leader, there are a few common ones that are pivotal when developing leadership skills:

1. Communication

Great leaders are expert communicators. They spend most of their time listening. And when they speak, they’re not just clear — they are sincere and consistent in what and how they communicate.

2. Integrity

Outstanding leaders know that integrity is a conscious choice. They actively choose to "walk the walk, and talk the talk." In other words, their actions match their words and are congruent with their values. This inspires confidence in their followers.

3. Values

The best leaders are mindful of their core values. They share them unabashedly and will do whatever it takes to hold true to them. Their values set the tone and provide behavioral guidelines for their followers.

4. Vision

Great leaders know where they’re headed and why. They’ve always got one foot in the future and one in the present. They view their role as manifesting their vision of the future.

5. Passion

Passion fuels great leaders. It is a never-ending source of energy that separates the doers from the dreamers. It is what initially attracts followers and inspires them.

6. Confidence

Confidence is necessary for staying the course when things get tough. Great leaders have an abundance of confidence — although this can quickly turn into arrogance without the next quality to balance it.

7. Curiosity

Along with listening, great leaders ask lots of questions. Their curiosity is insatiable. They constantly learn and hone their skills. They are open about what they don’t know because their confidence lets them learn, absorb, and apply what they’ve learned. And they’re equal opportunity learners — they’re willing to learn from janitors to CEOs, from plumbers to musicians. They are ego-less when it comes to learning.

8. Positive Attitude

Great leaders might get "down," but this is not their typical outlook. They are eternal optimists who are excited by the future and what it holds. They know that attitude is often a choice. Great leaders choose to exude the type of attitude that will influence their team in a positive way.

9. Competence

They are the best at what they do, always accomplishing more than expected. They accept what they’re not good at and are so self-secure that they surround themselves with people whose strengths complement their own. As a result, they attract followers who are continually inspired.

10. Empowerment

They set their people up for success. They don’t leave them to fend for themselves, nor do they throw them under a bus — for any reason.

What are bad leadership qualities?

Now that you know the top 10 traits of great leaders, let’s explore some qualities that leaders should avoid. Consider the following:

1. Indifference

Empathy plays a critical role in leadership — so much so, it can actually impact businesses outcomes. Empathetic leaders concern themselves with building strong relationships and listening to others with undivided attention. They foster a culture where employees feel safe to share ideas and concerns without fear of repercussions.

2. Lack of Accountability

Great leaders take accountability when things go wrong and give credit to others when things go right. They frame mistakes as learning experiences that don't define them or reflect their value as a leader.

3. Conflict Avoidance

While most workplace debates are healthy, others can quickly spiral into a negative, unproductive space. When this happens, effective leaders swiftly intervene instead of letting issues fester. They find common ground amongst others and identify solutions.

4. Inflexible Mindset

"My way or the highway" is a mindset that won't get you very far as a leader. Even though inflexibility feels safe, effective leaders know this mindset demoralizes people. Instead, they push beyond their comfort zone, remain open to new ideas, and encourage innovation.

5. Need for Control

One of the quickest ways to thwart productivity, innovation, and creativity is to micromanage. Great leaders trust their team, delegate work effectively, and provide enough guidance to get the job done right — without looking over people's shoulders.

How to Develop Your Leadership Skills

1. Get to Know You

To become a great leader means taking stock of who you are — all your strengths and weaknesses. It means being brutally honest and humbly hearing how others view you. The most insightful information will come from other people because we rarely see ourselves as others do.

There are many assessments you can take, and some will also include options for others to evaluate you. Whenever you have to actually use a skill or ability in an assessment, you may find that information more useful than just your self-examination.

Here are some tried-and-true, as well as unique and innovative, assessments to take a look at:

2. Commit to Growth

After you’ve done some self-examination and you’ve come to grips with what you’ve learned about yourself, it's time for a plan. But no plan is worth the paper (or pixels) it’s written on without a commitment to see it through. As Yoda said, "Do or not do. There is no try."

3. Practice, Stand Accountable, and Be Generous

You (and only you) are responsible for the results of your leadership. You don’t get to blame others when you mess up. And you will mess up — you’re human. Honing skills and instilling new behaviors takes time, practice, and perseverance.

Whether you succeed or stumble, always be generous to those around you for their help and encouragement. I'm not saying toss out bonuses left and right. This is about generosity of spirit. If you give credit to others for your successes and shoulder the blame for your mistakes, you will find an endless supply of followers.

When you’re transparent about your intentions and sincere and honest in your actions and interactions, there’s nothing to be embarrassed, defensive, or ashamed about. If anything, your vulnerability can set a powerful example for your followers.

4. Don’t Go It Alone

The old saying "it’s lonely at the top" is all too often true because we make it true. We may isolate ourselves thinking we can’t trust others to tell us the truth or that we need to always be seen as strong, perfect, and in control at all times.

You can go that route if you wish. Or, you enroll people you trust in your journey. For example:

  • Hire an executive coach who provides an objective perspective and works with you to develop your abilities.
  • You and your leadership team (or other CEOs) could share your visions and plans with one another. Combine that with an executive coach to support all of you.
  • Solicit your followers’ help in holding you accountable for when you deviate off course, violate other people’s boundaries, or don’t live up to your own standards.
  • Hire a leadership consulting firm such as the Center for Creative Leadership, Heidrick and Struggles, Navalent, or Franklin-Covey to work with you and your leadership team.

Make the Choice

The first step to becoming an effective leader is to know yourself — all that is good and admirable and all the stuff that makes you cringe and want to hide under the bed. Because the good news is you can change and grow. It’s a choice you make. The stronger your commitment and the more often and courageously you act in the face of discomfort, the greater a leader you will become.

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Originally published Dec 21, 2021 8:00:00 AM, updated December 21 2021