Great leaders make their jobs look easy, but the reality is that leadership is one of the hardest skills to master. Effective leaders empower and motivate their teams, making entire organizations more successful.
People are not just born as natural leaders — you can learn, develop, and strengthen leadership skills with practice. Read on to learn about the traits you should master (and the ones you should veer away from) to be a better leader.
What are leadership traits?
Leadership traits are personal qualities exhibited by exemplary leaders. They are the kind of temperament, direction, and influence leaders need to foster cohesion among their teams and guide their organization to success.
These characteristics help shape how effectively you interact with peers, employees, 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.
Top Leadership Traits To Master
Great leaders shield their teams from blame whenever possible, taking responsibility as the captain steering the ship instead. Individual feedback can be offered to employees in one-on-one settings, but pointing fingers is unproductive and only creates negative working environments. Owning up to mistakes is humanizing and inspiring, promoting honesty in the workplace.
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, and build trust with the higher-ups.
It might sound like a given, but you need to be good at your job to be a strong leader. Being effective and nimble in your position helps you, your team, and your organization succeed. Your talent and work ethic will motivate those around you and earn their respect.
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 as you are. You need to cultivate trust with your team if you want to be an effective leader — and that starts with you trusting yourself.
The best leaders are never complacent — they’re always pursuing new learning opportunities. They ask questions and actively listen to feedback. As a leader, commit to remaining open-minded and constantly refining your skills.
The best leaders see their employees as people who have lives inside and outside of the office. They can put themselves in the shoes of others to understand how events could affect their team. Strong leaders communicate this empathy, having open conversations with their team and offering support and encouragement when needed.
After you’ve hired talented people, empower them to do their best work. Focus on building your team up rather than tearing them down, and be generous with praise and gratitude. Provide your team with the tools they need to move forward, succeed, and accomplish their personal goals.
Sometimes, it’s hard to concentrate on the task at hand instead of getting caught up in the details, or being distracted by shiny new projects. A good leader stays focused on the big picture and on goals and projects that move the needle for your company.
Passionate leaders are contagious and elevate those around them. The best leaders are invested in what they do — they have a personal stake in their work and a vested interest in their team’s success. If you want your team to work to the best of its ability, you need to show you’re doing exactly that.
Set an example by staying driven and optimistic as much as possible. But be sure not to take positivity to a toxic extreme: Make your team a place where you strive for optimism and excitement, but allow space for voicing negative emotions.
The best leaders don’t wing their decisions without an underlying strategy or goal. Sure, effective leaders need to make thoughtful calls on the fly — but they also envision a preferred trajectory that helps inform how they conduct themselves and guide their teams.
Bad Leadership Traits: What To Stay Away From
The below traits are harmful to leaders and can stall momentum and interfere with your, and your team’s, success.
1. Lack of communication
While there will always be certain pieces of information a leader needs to keep to themselves, being open and honest with one’s team is pivotal. When leaders are opaque about their intentions, it can leave employees frustrated and unmotivated.
Deliver clear feedback, expectations, and updates whenever possible and build your reputation as a transparent manager.
Things change quickly in business, and staying rigid or tied to unsuccessful ideas can hinder the team’s ability to pivot and adapt.
Inflexibility and stubbornness go hand in hand: Leaders who are wary of change or compromise appear stubborn and headstrong, making it less likely that innovative team members will feel comfortable presenting new ideas.
Leaders are often presented with a slew of choices, and their team members rely on them to make the final, correct decision for the organization.
If a leader is bogged down by indecision, the company can be left in the lurch while waiting for directives. Try to move quickly, but carefully, toward a decision — sometimes, even a wrong decision is better than no decision as it at least provides a learning opportunity.
Confidence is key to effective leadership, but there’s a limit. At some point, being too hardheaded 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.
5. Inability to accept blame
When things go wrong, weak leaders blame their teams, while strong leaders look inward and take on some of that blame themselves.
Take accountability for mistakes, and communicate that accountability to your team. This builds trust with your employees and creates an environment in which people feel secure enough to own up to their mistakes and shortcomings.
How To Develop Effective Leadership Traits
1. Get to know you
Becoming a great leader starts with taking stock of who you are, including your strengths and weaknesses. Be brutally honest, and humbly hear how others view you. The most valuable insight often comes from those around you.
There are several assessments you can take — some of which include options for others to evaluate you. 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, The SLII Experience™)
2. Commit to growth
After you’ve done some soul-searching, 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 do not. There is no try.”
3. Practice, stand accountable, and be generous
You (and only you) are responsible for the results of your leadership. Theres no question that you will mess up — honing skills and instilling new behaviors takes time, practice, and perseverance.
Whether you succeed or stumble, be generous to those around you for their help and encouragement. 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 others.
4. Don’t go it alone
Leaders can isolate themselves by thinking they can’t trust others to tell them the truth or that they 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.
- Share your visions and plans with other executives. Combine that with a business 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 about leadership. Amazon has 26k+ titles on leadership, and a quick Google search on “leadership” produces nearly 3m results.
If you’re looking to develop a leadership philosophy, you have a variety of viewpoints to choose from. Common leadership styles (in addition to servant leadership) include:
- Transactional leadership
- Transformational leadership
- Democratic leadership
- Autocratic leadership
- Bureaucratic leadership
- Laissez-faire leadership
- Charismatic leadership
You can read in-depth descriptions of those leadership styles here and use tools like this, this, and this to find out which one is right for you.
Only you will know which philosophy fits with your core values. What works for your colleague across town may not work for you. 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.