The 15 Traits, Characteristics and Qualities of Effective Leaders
Leadership traits define an organization and correlate with profitability and success because the way management professionals behave in the workplace sets the tone for employees. It also dictates whether a business achieves its goals and objectives. While leadership qualities can be learned and refined, people skills, self-awareness and the will to improve must be ever-present.
It's a leader's responsibility to motivate individuals, teams and junior managers. They must also offer guidance, sustain morale and prime the work environment for productivity. But, most of all, they must be consistent and approachable at all times, even when the chips are down.
Leaders must be able to make a good decision at the drop of a hat and inspire the workforce. This requires a unique blend of hard and soft skills; technical ability and deep insight into how people behave and why.
Here are the top 15 leadership qualities, traits and characteristics a good leader needs to build an effective team to drive their team to success.
Top 15 Leadership Traits
With technology driving change faster than ever, managers must constantly develop and adapt to new ways of working. Being able to quickly pick up new skills and take change in stride is indispensable.
A curious nature and love of strategy are the holy grail of leadership, and they make adapting to industry changes easier and more intuitive. At the organizational level, being adaptable means understanding that objectives, schedules and plans are subject to change. As such, developing adaptability allows you to pivot when necessary and take the best course of action in any given situation.
How to cultivate this leadership trait:
- Be open to new ideas and face challenges head-on.
- Always seek information about industry changes and prepare for staying one step ahead.
- Develop your critical thinking skills, so you're prepared to make quick decisions.
- Build grit, determination and endurance through physical activity.
All great leaders are passionate about their areas of expertise. Without passion, encouraging your team to do their best is significantly more difficult. A genuine love for what you do is contagious and can inspire even the most unmotivated team member to do better.
When your employees trust that you truly care about business outcomes, there's more urgency to do a good job. Being personally invested in your work means your team will be more emotionally invested. And when everyone cares about performance on a personal level, there's more at stake. People work harder, smarter and engage more when their mentor is passionate about their role.
How to foster this leadership skill:
- Knowledge and passion go hand in hand, so continually read and learn to become more confident and passionate.
- Don't be afraid to demonstrate positive emotion to your team.
- Be present and share your vision with every team member, from interns to senior stakeholders.
- Take every opportunity to praise a job well done.
3. Development: Self- and Employee-Focused
Curiosity, the desire to improve and a love of learning are common traits among the best leaders in the world. By demonstrating a desire to improve themselves, leaders inspire the workforce to do the same. In a fast-paced, ever-changing landscape, the desire to improve is a clear indicator of growth and success.
Organizations and managers who demonstrate a desire to invest in employee development are celebrated in today's economy. It's human nature to want to improve, and leaders can tap into this desire to simultaneously improve productivity and employee experience. This will ensure teams maintain pace with the changing nature of work environments and business as a whole.
How to develop this leadership trait:
- Ask for employee feedback using a mixture of face-to-face meetings and surveys.
- Develop an improvement strategy for each employee.
- Implement an improvement plan for yourself.
- Have clear expectations and set measurable, achievable goals.
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Innovation is one of the most crucial leadership traits. It lies at the heart of growth, and leaders must embrace creativity to effectively push an organization forward. This means you can't be afraid to take risks or experiment with different outcomes.
Not being too proud to admit when something doesn't work, so you can change course accordingly, is also essential for successful leadership.
How to foster this leadership quality:
- Spend a portion of each week looking for ways to refine and improve each process and procedure.
- Dedicate a portion of employees' time to innovation and experimentation.
- Reward creativity in junior managers and employees.
- Make time for regular team meetings and brainstorming sessions.
5. Ethical and Pro-Social
A strong leader is ethical and pro-social. With power comes responsibility, and being value-driven is a major competitive advantage these days. One study from 2020 suggests that good leadership intrinsically has a social impact, echoing through business and into the wider world.
Consumers and governments care about ethics and the planet more than ever. Being prosocial doesn't just make you a better leader within your company. It helps ensure that part of your overarching strategy is to make the world a better place. And what trait is more commendable for a leader to possess than the desire to improve the world?
How to accomplish these leadership traits:
- Stay up-to-date with trends in sustainability.
- Create core values and mission and vision statements to inspire employees and customers.
- Partner with a charity that's aligned with your target audience.
- Make efforts to reduce your carbon footprint and environmental impact.
Related Article: An In-Depth Look at Participative Leadership
6. Inclusive and Effective Communication
The internet has facilitated globalization in a way the world has never seen before. The workforce is becoming increasingly remote, with the option to hire from further afield and build genuinely global teams. Plus, with movement around the globe, cities are more cross-cultural than ever.
Along with the proliferation of multicultural workplaces comes the need for inclusive communication. In other words, to get the most out of people, you need to treat them as individuals and respect their respective cultures. The better you are at this, the more future-proof your leadership style.
How to cultivate this leadership skill:
- Take an interest in your employee's backgrounds and aim to cater to different requirements.
- Avoid generalizations and microaggressions.
- Celebrate major holidays and special occasions from around the world.
- Consider going on a course about inclusivity and diversity if you feel it's an area for improvement.
7. Confident But Approachable
Confidence is the difference between being believable and questionable. Learning how to come across as self-assured is vital for leaders at every level. However, confidence shouldn't be a replacement for knowledge and drive. Fake confidence often comes across as arrogance. And overconfidence causes leaders to come across as unapproachable and uninspiring.
How to be more confident and approachable:
- Learn your industry inside out.
- Show off your knowledge, but always admit when you don't know something.
- Focus on building poise and conviction into your leadership style.
- Develop an awareness of your strengths and weaknesses.
8. Self Aware and Accountable
To be a great manager, you need to know where your strengths and weaknesses lie. This enables you to accurately fill skill gaps and play to your strengths while providing backup for your weaknesses where necessary. Emotional intelligence lies at the heart of self-awareness. It's crucial to take responsibility and compensate for shortcomings accordingly.
How to foster these leadership qualities:
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What would happen if every member of your team came to work focused on finding solutions and creating better results?
- Take responsibility for your team's failures and successes in equal measure.
- Never play the blame game; only see opportunities for improvement.
- Behave as you expect employees to in regard to owning up to mistakes and taking accountability.
- Keep a journal to track personal wins and losses.
All the best leaders are able to remain focused on organizational goals, no matter what happens. As an owner or manager of a business, you must be able to roll with whatever comes your way. For example, if you get a major complaint and let it impact your performance, your entire team is likely to follow suit. You're the model of behavior in your company, and being focused, regardless of what happens, is the key to productivity.
How to develop this leadership skill:
- Sleep well, eat well and get regular exercise.
- Set daily, weekly, monthly and annual objectives and continually refine them to ensure you stay on track.
- Be organized.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation or go to therapy to resolve any issues that hamper your focus.
10. Emotionally Stable
Emotional stability is one of the most important and least talked about leadership traits. It doesn't mean you have to be a robot or lack empathy, but you must control how you come across. Compartmentalizing, so employees see you as infallible, is a hugely effective leadership trait. Having a consistent and stable leader is vital, so employees feel safe, calm and focused.
How to include this leadership quality:
- Save your worries and gripes for a senior manager, mentor or someone in your personal life.
- Use emotions, such as disappointment and anger, sparsely and strategically to ensure they have an impact when necessary.
- Be open about emotions in the workplace.
- Try to maintain a consistent effect, avoiding demonstrating intense happiness or sadness to your team.
Delegation is a leadership trait that all leaders must cultivate to take their team to the next level. When you first take the reins, it's tempting to do everything yourself. However, this approach causes laziness in the workforce and will quickly burn you out. Being able to delegate the right jobs to the right people can improve operational efficiency.
How to approach this leadership trait:
- Establish a task hierarchy process.
- Keep a list of your team's strengths and weaknesses.
- Reward hard work and desirable outcomes by teaching new skills or building on existing ones.
- Make yourself available for questions and feedback.
Humility is one of the most important leadership traits. People who are humble tend to be more likable because they don't shy away from criticism. Equally, being defensive and acting as if you have no weaknesses is off-putting. Humble leaders inspire employees to be humble and admit mistakes where necessary. It's important to balance confidence and humility effectively to be a true leader.
How to cultivate this leadership skill:
- Take the time to listen to employees.
- Seek feedback about your performance.
- Stay calm in the face of criticism or difficulties.
- Ask for help when necessary.
As a supervisor, manager, owner or executive, you work differently than your team. However, you must make the effort to demonstrate empathy and be able to put yourself in their shoes. Remaining in touch with your employees' experience allows you to set goals realistically and meaningfully.
How to grow this leadership trait:
- Show genuine care for your employees beyond the scope of their employment.
- Be accommodating of personal issues.
- Hold group and individual meetings.
- Avoid judgment and never interrupt.
One of the most powerful leadership traits is being influential. It's also one of the hardest to cultivate. This is because it relies on your ability to inspire employees by making them want to mirror your successes. To have influence over people, you must consistently demonstrate that you achieve results. You need to be a highly effective communicator who's simultaneously self-assured and likable.
Last on this list of leadership qualities is shrewdness. While it might seem like a general term, it's indispensable for leaders. Making decisions effectively is all about having exceptional judgment. And great judgment is the culmination of all the other traits mentioned in this article. Industry knowledge, confidence, empathy, focus, passion and adaptability let leaders read people and situations and predict outcomes.
How to build on this leadership strength:
- Use wisdom and knowledge to inspire trust and respect, rather than authority alone.
- Be clear about expectations and consistently reward good work.
- Learn about individual motivators and pain points.
- Don't rush into decision-making unless absolutely necessary.
Are Leadership Qualities Learned or Innate?
Like any characteristic, leadership qualities are a mixture of an innate set of personality traits and what is learned. However, nothing is set in stone. Even someone who struggles with empathy, delegation or confidence can work on building these traits to be a better leader.
Leading with the understanding that change and improvement are possible is vital in today's landscape. By setting the example to employees and showing that you're committed to development, leaders will inspire them to do the same.
To be an exceptional leader, it's also important to understand the leadership qualities that have the worst outcomes.
Characteristics of a Bad Leader
What's considered good leadership might have changed since you've been in a position of power. As the modern workforce's priorities shift and change, so do the expectations placed upon a leader. Some leaderships qualities that are outdated today include:
- Rarely being seen or heard by anyone who isn't a senior team member.
- Being overly prescriptive about work schedules and modes of working.
- Rewarding outcomes instead of effort.
- Heavily restricting job roles.
- Neglecting praise and celebrations of success.
- Relying on authority and 'because I said so,' instead of explaining and guiding.
- Persistently pursuing best practices that used to work but don't anymore.
It's possible to become a better leader by avoiding these pitfalls and focusing on building the 15 leadership traits mentioned above. The list could also help identify talent within your teams or sift through applications for management positions.
The workplace is changing faster than ever. Keeping your knowledge base up with the pace of change can help future-proof yourself as a leader and grow your business.