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.
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 are leadership traits?
Simply put, leadership traits are personal qualities exhibited by exemplary leaders. They're characteristics that lend themselves to the kind temperament, direction, and influence required of leaders to foster cohesion among their teams and guide their followers to success.
Leadership traits help shape how and how effectively you interact with peers, followers, and higher-ups. If you can consistently exhibit and live by them, you'll be able to navigate murky situations and inspire others to trust your judgment.
The best leadership traits typically revolve around sound morals, the ability to uplift those around you, and commitment to self-improvement. Let's take a look at some key ones you can incorporate into your repertoire to more effectively guide those around you.
Top Leadership Traits
- Positive Attitude
Your ability to lead often rests on how well you can communicate — whether that be with colleagues, higher-ups, or the people you manage. Even the best instincts, intentions, and ideas don't mean much if they can't be thoughtfully conveyed or articulated.
You need to be able to speak clearly and sincerely — with accessibility and a willingness to provide further explanation as needed. Expert communication is one of the better ways to inspire and connect with the people you lead. That's why it's one of the best leadership traits you can develop.
Effective leaders lead with goodwill and honest intentions, and they make a conscious effort to deliver on the expectations they set for themselves. That makes integrity — the combination of that good faith and commitment — ;a staple of every exemplary leader's repertoire.
In a similar vein to the previous point, this one has to do with effective leaders' goodwill and intentions. The best leaders have consciences — they have standards they live by and incorporate those values in how they conduct themselves.
The best leaders don't wing every decision they make without any sort of underlying strategy or goal in place. Sure, effective leaders need to be able to make thoughtful calls on the fly — but they also chart a preferred trajectory to help inform how they conduct themselves and guide their teams.
The best leaders are invested in what they do — they have a personal stake in their work and a vested interest in both their and their team's success. Passion fuels inspiration. If you want your team to work to the best of its ability, you need to show you're doing exactly that.
If you're only halfway committing to your ideas and second-guessing every call you make, the people you lead are going to take notice — and they'll be every bit as unsure of your leadership as you are of your decision-making.
That's why confidence is key. You need to cultivate trust with your team if you want to be an effective leader — that starts with you trusting yourself.
The best leaders are never complacent with what they already know — they're always pursuing new learning opportunities. They ask questions and actively listen to the responses. If you want to be an effective leader, you need to remain open-minded and constantly refine your skills.
And don't discriminate when it comes to learning — true curiosity is being willing to field ideas and insight from everyone from CEOs to colleagues to direct-reports to janitors.
Positivity and productivity go hand in hand. People are most effective at what they do when they're engaged and enthusiastic. Being a beacon of positivity brings out the best in the people you lead. Set an example by staying driven and optimistic as much as possible.
Like other points listed here, this one is rooted in trust. People don't trust someone who can't fulfill their own responsibilities. You need to be exceptional at your job if the people you lead are going to take you seriously — never give them any reason to second guess why you're in charge.
In a lot of ways, leadership is the process of elevating those around you — that's how teams ultimately come together to more effectively pursue common objectives. The best leaders take actions like recognizing milestones and accomplishments. They don't coddle the people they lead, but they never undermine or under-appreciate them either.
The best leaders are willing to consider virtually every perspective their colleagues and team members bring to the table — approaching those views and circumstances with compassion and empathy. Being able to place yourself in others' positions is central to building trust and ultimately getting more out of those you work with.
Bad Leadership Traits
Apathy is dangerous as a leader — it undermines your ability to remain focused, inspire your team, and ultimately get the most out of those you work with. If your team members know you don't care, they'll wonder why they should have to either.
2. Lack of Accountability
The best leaders know that the buck stops with them — they own their mistakes and never deflect responsibility for problems they should have handled. They acknowledge their shortcomings and constantly work to improve them.
3. Conflict Avoidance
Conflict is natural and constructive when handled correctly. Effective leaders understand that and embrace discord and discomfort — approaching those situations thoughtfully and treating them as opportunities for growth and resolution.
Confidence is key to effective leadership, but there's a limit. At a certain point, being too hard-headed moves from inspirational to frustrating. The best leaders know how to toe that line — using their faith in themselves to bring the best out of those around them without being overbearing.
5. Unwillingness to Learn
The best leaders treat every situation as a learning experience — regardless of its outcome. Every success or misstep is an opportunity for growth, and if you want to be an effective leader, you need to understand and embrace that.
Thoroughly reflect on your wins and losses as they come. Try to build on what you do right and correct what you do wrong — and never get complacent. Simply staying the course won't do too much for you in the long run.
How to Develop Effective Leadership Traits
1. Get to Know You
Becoming a great leader starts with you taking stock of who you are — all your strengths and weaknesses. Be brutally honest, and humbly hear how others view you. The most valuable. objective insight often comes from those around you.
There are several assessments you can take — some of which 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:
- Personality assessments (MBTI, Fascination Advantage)
- Talents and abilities (Highlands Abilities Battery)
- Influence potential (Keller Influence Indicator)
- Leadership style, traits, etc. (360º Assessments, Maxwell Leadership Assessment, Blanchard Frontline Leadership)
2. Commit to Growth
After you’ve done some self-examination and come to grips with what you’ve learned about yourself, it's time to set a plan in motion — 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 there's no question that you will. Honing skills and instilling new behaviors take time, practice, and perseverance.
Whether you succeed or stumble, always be generous to those around you for their help and encouragement — but 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 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 those around you.
4. Don’t Go It Alone
The old saying, "It’s lonely at the top," is often true because we make it that way. We tend to isolate ourselves by 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 want to — or you could 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.
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.
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.
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.