What Is Leadership?
Ultimately, leadership might be something easier shown than discussed. Because most people can point to a leader and tell you what makes them great. However, even some of the top organizational leaders themselves can’t seem to agree on a good definition. And without a strong foundation, determining the qualities of a good leader is far more difficult. So, finding some sort of basis for leadership is necessary.
Peter Drucker, the late management guru, defined “leadership” quite simply. In his view, the only requirement for a leader was that they have followers. But this doesn’t seem to capture the other important nuances of the skill. For example, that leaders have the ability to take a vision and bring it to life. In fact, this is the view of Warren Bennis. Yet this too suffers from simplicity, because it neglects the role of other people. According to Bill Gates, leaders are those who seek to empower others. Furthermore, John Maxwell claimed that leadership is nothing more or less than influence.
But none of these attempts at defining leadership seem adequate alone. Because they all fail to take into account one or more important aspects. Generally speaking, leaders need to have both vision and followers. But moreover, they must use their influence to maximize the effort of followers in order to accomplish a shared vision. So, at the most basic, a leader:
- Has a specific vision
- Enlists others to the cause of fulfilling that vision
- Influences and empowers followers to accomplish the shared vision
With these criterion, it’s also important to point out that leaders aren’t necessarily born, they’re made. While certain personality traits help a person naturally gravitate toward strong leadership, it’s a learned skill. So, some might have to work harder to be leaders, but it isn’t out of reach.
The Importance of Good Leadership
More than likely, most people can point to a great leader in their life. Perhaps a teacher or coach, spiritual advisor, manager, or something of the sort. But unfortunately, most people can also point out terrible leaders. Because with the definition provided, there’s room for both the positive and negative.
The ability to inspire others to accomplish a shared goal doesn’t mean the methods used are appropriate. It also doesn’t mean leaders always accomplish their means ethically or that their goals were ever good to begin with. In fact, history is full of bad leaders with heinous plans. And that means understanding the qualities of good and bad leaders alike is vital.
Ultimately, effective leadership toward the wrong ends can have devastating consequences. But similarly, strong leadership toward good and wholesome ends can reshape an organization. And furthermore, strong and ethical leadership can beneficially impact society. So, those in authoritative positions would do well to invest in the qualities of a good leader. In the end, even if their impact on society is small, they’ll have made a positive difference for their team.
The Best Qualities of a Good Leader
1. Recognize the Organization’s Societal Impact
Ultimately, organizations have obligations not only to themselves and their workers but also to society as a whole. Consequently, leaders who fail to recognize their company’s role in creating a better world also blind themselves to their full purpose. Of course, some leaders inherently recognize the impact their organization could have on society. Because their cause is directly attempting to change something about their town, province, or nation. For example, political parties or revolutionaries. However, leaders of smaller enterprises might not inherently understand how their product or goals contribute. Discerning and understanding how a product, goal or idea impacts society is paramount to ensuring it does so positively. And of course, the best leaders have the interest of others at the forefront of their minds.
2. Ethically Minded
One of the highest qualities of a good leader is being ethically minded. That is, always seeking to conduct an organization in a way that values and upholds moral principles. In today’s world, there are plenty of examples of companies that ultimately fail to do this. And in many cases, leaders are aware of moral failings in their organizations if not outright complicit. For example, Activision, a gaming company, has recently come under fire for sexual misconduct allegations. And the CEO, Bobby Kotick, apparently knew about the situation for years. Leaders have an obligation to ensure their organizations and followers are above reproach. And moreover, to create as a safe environment for employees as possible. However, if a situation does arise like that at Activision, leaders have the responsibility to address it lawfully and appropriately.
An essential part of ethical mindedness is having integrity, not simply as a leader but also as a person. Because many organizations have been brought low due to the moral failings of their leaders. However, integrity here isn’t synonymous with ethical leadership. It refers to what a leader does when they think they won’t be found out. There’s a tongue-in-cheek adage about “not being a criminal unless you get caught”. And that’s exactly what integrity struggles against. Because that sort of mindset seems overly prevalent in many corporate and organizational settings.
Just because a top executive can take some money here and there doesn’t mean they should. Furthermore, it certainly doesn’t imply they’ve only been guilty of embezzlement if they are caught. Integrity demands that people do the right things because they’re right. Not because they’re afraid of getting in trouble. And as one of the most important qualities of a good leader, it cannot be forgotten.
4. Transparent & Accountable
Ultimately, it’s fairly difficult to separate the ethical integrity of leaders from the qualities of transparency and accountability. Because they all go hand-in-hand rather well. Corporate authorities who make the right decisions even when they won’t get caught are also those who know the importance of honesty. And since that’s an intrinsic part of both transparency and accountability, leaders cannot leave it by the wayside. Even so, they must also understand discretion, especially when it comes to sensitive organizational information. So, in practice, the best leaders should remain up-front and honest about practices in their companies. Particularly when they involve ethical situations or potential scandals. However, they can also preempt these tense situations by creating a culture of accountability both for themselves and their employees.
5. Curious and Inquisitive
Another quality of a good leader is an insatiable appetite for knowledge in general. In other words, they have minds that hunger to solve mysteries, to understand the complex, and discover new pathways. Because these are individuals capable of solving problems in the daily life of an organization. Curiosity and inquisitiveness are also hallmarks of deep-thinkers, philosophers, and dreamers. And without these traits, it can be difficult to break away from traditional ways of doing things. Thus, if an organization has any hope of innovation and growth, it needs curious and inquisitive leaders.
6. Love for Learning
By now, it should be clear each of these traits plays into the others in some way. And a deep, intrinsic love for learning is no exception, because it’s both the foundation and outcome of natural curiosity. In short, inquisitive minds always seek to learn. And furthermore, that isn’t something that stops with a baseline education or degree. The importance of lifelong learning is something the greatest leaders understand. It offers the chance for continued growth, personal transformation, and groundbreaking discoveries. But it doesn’t always happen easily. Because with knowledge and success often come pride and unwillingness to move. So, as leaders establish themselves and find effective ways of doing things, they must remember to learn. Otherwise, they can become stuck in their ways and fall behind others who strive for growth.
7. Invest in Technical Knowledge
Though not as apparent as willingness to learn, investing in technical knowledge is another quality of a good leader. Of course, this doesn’t mean individuals should know how to run every part of a company. Because that would be absurd. No single person should be responsible for moving the different arms of an organization. After all, that’s why companies are composed of various people capable of drastically different things. Each person brings with them the knowledge and expertise pertinent to their role. However, leaders who understand technical jargon and subjects can better direct and advise the different parts. So, while they might not necessarily carry out the tasks themselves, they know what needs to be done. And moreover, they can effectively communicate with the different departments as needed. After all, communication is one of the qualities of a good leader, so having some technical knowledge is wise.
8. Strong Self-Motivation
Out of the various qualities of a strong leader, self-motivation might be one of the most important. Because without this trait, organization leaders are little more than figureheads. Of course, it’s absolutely important to listen to and rely on input from others. But if leaders only do so, they eventually lose their authority. Because individuals with no self-motivation are ones who must constantly rely on the direction of others. And definitionally, that goes against the idea that leaders are responsible for empowering followers. In fact, it’s the exact opposite, where followers are responsible for feeding a bad leader’s ego. Making decisions and having the motivation to keep progressing is paramount to organizational direction. So, leaders who are lax when it comes to self-motivation should find ways to inspire themselves. Otherwise, they may find they’re not a true leader for long.
It’s already been said, but it might as well be noted again. Leaders cannot be everything and do everything for an organization. Like any other individual, they have definite limits to knowledge and capabilities. And part of good leadership is recognizing where those limitations lie. Self-awareness is another of the qualities of a good leader which impacts every other area. Because it defines a person’s ethical stances, their relationships with employees, and much else. In fact, without high self-awareness, leaders are more likely to manipulate and abuse followers. So, understanding limitations, triggers, abilities, and a host of other personal factors is essential to good leadership. Otherwise, they will likely lose support and respect, which can negatively impact the organization at large.
10. Reliance on Others’ Insights
Sometimes, the various qualities of a good leader have to be held together in friction. And a leader’s reliance on others’ insights is the perfect example. Because it’s already been noted that the best leaders are those who are self-motivated. But that doesn’t mean they fail to heed the advice of followers. So, it’s important for them to chart a way forward while listening to others on the best way to achieve those goals. After all, no individual has the ability to foresee every possible outcome. An accountant has insight which an HR manager doesn’t, and vice versa. CEOs don’t necessarily understand every aspect of marketing. So, leaders would do well to truly grapple with the data and insights their trusted advisors bring to them. Otherwise, they could chart a course based on faulty information that leads to disaster.
11. Know When to Stop Talking and Listen
Most people can probably conjure up an image of the “angry manager”. The red-faced, steam-out-of-his-ears boss yelling about some problem that’s likely actually his fault. And sadly, this is a realistic depiction of some leaders. They don’t know when to stop talking and listen to others. They get so caught up in their own wants, desires and plans that they fail to recognize the worth of others’ ideas. So, whether it’s blame or planning, excitement or anger, leaders need to learn the value of silence. At least, on their part. Because when they understand how to truly listen to others, they can gain a much-needed idea of how to be better. Not only in terms of corporate financial success but also in creating a healthy organizational workplace.
12. Sense of Humility
Of course, few employees enjoy a manager with an inflated sense of ego. Leaders who puff themselves up while standing on the accomplishments of others make poor managers. However, those who keep their ego in-check with a healthy dose of humility do well for themselves and their followers. Because individuals who recognize their flaws amid successes know how to relate to others on a much more human level. They don’t have a god-complex and unreasonably expect perfection from followers. Rather, they understand success or failure may be a direct result of their own leadership. In fact, leaders don’t have less responsibility for outcomes, they have more. However, that doesn’t mean they should claim sole responsibility when things go well. Ultimately, humility might not be necessary for effective leadership, but it’s one of the qualities of a good leader.
13. Vision and Planning
Without a doubt, all leaders need to have some sort of grasp on vision and planning. That is, having an idea or goal and recognizing a way to make that dream a reality. After all, that’s one of the three pillars of leadership. However, there are some organizational authorities out there who learn to delegate far too many tasks to followers or co-heads. And in some cases, to the point where they no longer have a claim to a vision or plan of achieving it. In these cases, again, leaders are only figureheads for the real work going on behind the scenes. And to that extent, they cannot truly be called “leaders”. Overall, they must learn to listen and adopt others’ ideas. But at the same time, they must be able to supply an organization’s overall vision and goals. Otherwise, they will either be too authoritative or not driven enough.
14. Decision-Making Abilities
While leaders have an obligation to listen to others’ input, the responsibility for making executive decisions largely rests with them. Because, for example, two department heads might easily have differing viewpoints on an issue. So, it’s up to those in charge to listen to information, analyze the suggestions and determine the best path forward. Overall, decision-making isn’t something which leaders can or should delegate to others. At least, not on an organization-wide scale. So, when it comes to determining the trajectory of the company, leaders must step up to the plate. Otherwise, it’s like a ship without a captain, lost at sea with nowhere to go.
15. Courage to Take Necessary and Calculated Risk
Often enough, business isn’t safe. It requires some amount of risk to see growth. And in such instances, leaders must be willing to go out on a limb and take chances. Sometimes that might mean financial vulnerability or investing in products that could tank. However, willingness to take necessary risk doesn’t mean recklessness. Because all too often, leaders are willing to put employees and organizations at risk for unsatisfactory reasons. The key here is actually wisdom or discernment. Because taking calculated risk is far different than wildly going after every opportunity with abandon. Leaders have an obligation to look after the best interest of their followers. And when the potential cost of a decision far outweighs the reward, it probably isn’t the best move. So, leaders must walk the middle way between risk and recklessness, discerning the best way forward.
16. Delegating Responsibilities to Others
While leaders generally should not rely on followers to make huge decisions, they should absolutely delegate responsibility. Because, again, no single person can realistically handle every task alone. In fact, if leaders are unwilling to delegate jobs to others, there’s no reason to have followers in the first place. They’re there to help bring a vision to life. And if leaders have done their job correctly, followers will want to help because they believe in what they’re doing. Additionally, good leaders won’t delegate things they’re unwilling to do. However, they definitely ask others to do things they themselves cannot do. If an organization is like a body, composed of different parts, each member has a role to play. The head might make the decisions, but it’s up to each other part to carry out the necessary tasks.
17. Listen and Learn from Critique
Unfortunately, human nature seems intrinsically bent toward defense in response to critique. That is, when another person points out something less than ideal, the natural inclination is to lash out. But leaders must operate on a different spectrum altogether if they hope to lead well. And one of the most important qualities of a good leader is listening and learning from critiques. Sure, sometimes followers complain about things that don’t actually need to change. After all, the best leadership practices aren’t always ones people appreciate. However, organization heads must do their best to discern which flaws to address. And furthermore, they must do what they can do grow and become better in response. That way, they constantly strive to meet the needs of followers while becoming a better leader.
18. Resilience When Knocked Down
When people think of good leaders, they don’t picture the ones who gave up after a setback. They imagine those who are knocked down after adversity and get up to triumph. Resilience is just another quality of a good leader that’s indispensable. Because setbacks will happen. Organizations will face pressure and defeat, but what their leaders do in response matters. If they shut down mentally and emotionally, they’ll lose traction. However, if they meet bad situations head-on and do everything in their power to overcome obstacles, they stand to succeed. After all, mental strength is just as important in business as technical knowledge and planning. So, the importance of fortitude cannot be overestimated.
19. Creativity in Problem Solving
There exists no single path to success. Which means different organizations can easily go different routes and end up in the same place. Alternatively, a single company can take many different paths and find the same result. All in all, this should inspire creativity in problem solving. Just because one company has traditionally met adversity a certain way doesn’t mean others have to do the same. In fact, out-of-the-box thinking is responsible for innovative progress. So, leaders would do well to meet various organizational problems with creative solutions. Whether they encourage it in their followers or engage in it themselves, it’s an important quality to express.
Of course, it doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind and implementing anything just to try it. Discernment and wisdom are still important. However, it does mean refraining from shutting down new or inventive solutions just because they aren’t typical. So, creative problem solving is one of many qualities of a good leader that can inform others.
An intrinsic part of creative problem-solving is flexibility. Because without the ability to bend from the norm, leaders will never discover new ways of doing things. Now, flexibility doesn’t always have to apply to problem-solving. It can involve corporate structure, work schedules, and a host of other areas. And in some cases, leaders cannot afford to be flexible. However, learning to allow for differences and changes in cases which allow it is a good practice to engage in. Because, if nothing else, it reinforces the idea that leaders are responsible for shaping an organization around the needs of followers. And coming up with creative ways to meet those needs is a hallmark quality of good and effective leadership.
21. Set Realistic Expectations
Initially, realistic expectation might seem somewhat contradictory to other qualities of a good leader, like flexibility and creative problem solving. However, it doesn’t need to be. As the person primarily responsible for determining goals, leaders must be realistic. Otherwise, when plans aren’t accomplished as expected, they can end up taking out their frustration on the wrong parties. In other words, employees often get the brunt of frustration for their managers’ unrealistic expectations. And simply put, that isn’t all right. It’s up to corporate heads to come up with goals that are manageable – SMART Goals, for instance. And a key aspect of those plans are that they remain realistic, achievable. If teams can’t expect to feasibly accomplish a goal, it will lower morale and lead to negative consequences. So, leaders must analyze and assess their goals to ensure they set realistic expectations.
22. Effective Communication
Many of the listed qualities of a good leader hinge on clear, effective communication. So, it’s a no wonder that struggling organizations suffer from a lack of good communication from the top. Partly, because communication is a two-fold street. Information goes out, but information must also come in. In other words, leaders must not only give orders. They have to listen carefully to what’s being spoken back to them. And if they shut down, refusing to entertain new ideas, they’ll end up alienating their followers. So, organizational leaders must learn to communicate plans, intentions and important information. And furthermore, they must do so in a way that’s understandable and clear to those on the receiving end. At the same time, they must recognize the value of what their followers have to say to them.
23. Patience with Followers and Results
One of the most disconcerting things a leader can do is expect immediate results. Because in most cases, measurable change won’t happen overnight. It takes time to see plans come to fruition, and growth can be slow-going. So, when leaders demand immediate results, it comes across as selfish and out-of-touch. Alternatively, leaders who recognize the time it takes for plans to play out are often well-respected by their followers. Because they aren’t attempting to force unrealistic quotas on others. Of course, sometimes, quick results are necessary to determine if a path forward is viable or not. However, in most circumstances, leaders would do well to take a deep breath, sit back and wait patiently to see how things play out. And though this is only one of many qualities of a good leader, it’s one which followers will surely appreciate.
24. Empathy Toward Followers’ Needs
An organization runs only as well as the parts that make it turn, which are of course, the employees. So, if they’re burdened with detrimental working conditions, things won’t run effectively. And sometimes, this means addressing issues with roots outside of the workplace as well. Because as much as some people want to say personal factors shouldn’t come into the office, they do. A worker going through a messy divorce or suffering the loss of a child won’t have their mind fully on the task at hand. And leaders, rather than shaming or disciplining such individuals, should show empathy. At least, to a certain extent. Of course, some situations can’t go on indefinitely. However, if leaders can help meet the emotional and physical needs of their followers as best as possible, they’ll not only create a better workplace, they’ll inspire loyalty.
25. Emotional Intelligence
Generally, one could list many aspects of emotional intelligence. It encompasses an awareness of personal emotions as well as the feelings of others. And furthermore, it embodies the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. However, it also forms the basis for empathy. So, it largely impacts many areas, from communication to relationships between leaders and followers. Thus, the importance of emotional intelligence as one of the qualities of a good leader is absolute. Those who close themselves off to the needs and feelings of others do so to their own detriment. Because a leader who shows an awareness of others’ feelings is one who inspires trust. But those who throw such sentiment by the wayside come across as cold and uncaring.
26. Giving and Inspiring Respect
Followers should never be treated as a means to an end. After all, they’re people with goals, ambitions, hopes and dreams of their own. And to treat them as anything less is dehumanizing and demeaning. Thus, to inspire respect leaders must give respect. If for no other reason than that their followers are human. That doesn’t mean they should overlook mistakes or go easy on employees who cause problems. However, the way they handle such situations speaks volumes about their ability to lead well. Because it’s possible to address negative situations and hand out consequences respectfully. Leaders who recognize the intrinsic worth in their followers stand a far better chance of receiving respect back.
27. Empowering of Others
In a sense, many of these qualities of a good leader seem to run together. They say similar things and carry largely the same implications. And perhaps on the relational side of leadership, everything could be summed up in the Golden Rule. That is, “Treat others how you yourself would want to be treated”. Of course, hand-in-hand with that platitude is a leader’s responsibility to empower their workers. After all, that’s part of the very definition of a leader. One who empowers their followers to help achieve a goal. So, in reality, leaders who fail to empower others are those who aim for defeat. Empowered workers empower organizations.
28. Focus on Team Success Before Personal Success
In this day, when it’s just as likely for leaders of massive organizations to move to another in the blink of an eye, it’s easy to focus on personal success. Because in some cases, it’s necessary to ensure job security. However, truly great leaders focus on the success of the organization before their own personal ambitions. And in large part, this means aiding the success of followers before thinking of self. Sometimes, what’s best for the organization might not be what’s ideal for the leader. And though this might not be the norm, they have the obligation to seek first the betterment of others. Self-indulgence isn’t a virtue but selflessness is. And ultimately, focusing on self-success can actually inhibit it in the long-run. Because if followers discover selfishness in their leaders, they’ll be less likely to trust and follow them.
29. Give Credit Where It’s Due
One of the easiest ways for a leader to inspire the trust and loyalty of followers s to give credit where due. After all, very few people enjoy putting hard work into a project just another to claim it as their own. So, when followers do their best, going above and beyond, it makes sense to praise them for it. Particularly in a way which lets that person know they’re appreciated and valued. Sometimes, that might look like public recognition, and other times a few words in private. How this works out specifically is up to the individuals involved. However, the principle is still the same. Leaders should make known individuals whose contributions delivered success.
30. Understand the Importance of Rest
Out of the qualities of a good leader discussed, this one probably seems like the odd one out. After all, the others fit together well, and it’s easy to see how they play out. But knowing the importance of rest is just as critical as the others. Because a leader who is physically and mentally exhausted is one who has little capacity for the other qualities. Always going without stopping is the perfect way to crash and burn. And sometimes, this might manifest in health issues. Other times, exploding on employees who don’t deserve it.
Regardless, restlessness is a prime obstruction to good leadership. Furthermore, this doesn’t only mean getting a good night’s sleep. Leaders need to recognize when to take breaks, when to recuperate. Sometimes, it means a vacation. Other times, a short holiday. But once they’ve had time to themselves and family, they can come back ready to dive in again.
VTR Learning Can Help You Discover More Qualities of a Good Leader
Obviously, there’s quite a bit that goes into making a good leader. And simply because someone doesn’t exhibit every quality listed here doesn’t mean they’re a failure. Sometimes, it’s easiest to see how good leadership actually plays out in a real setting instead of just discussing it theoretically. And that’s exactly where VTR Learning can help. In fact, we have multiple courses on leadership that cast learner as an intern at a fictional company. That way, as they make their way through the course, they can see how things play out realistically. And if you’re a member of a business professional organization like AICPA, SHRM/HRCI, or the American Payroll Association, you can earn recertification credit. So, if you’re interested in discovering more qualities of a good leader, be sure to check them out.
Article written by Braden Norwood
Last updated August 9, 2023