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When you think about a leader in your organization, does your mind automatically go toward your boss or someone with a high level of authority?
While hopefully you’re right in that these people in leadership positions are in fact good leaders, being an effective leader actually has nothing to do with a job title or a certain level of seniority.
Being a leader is more than just being a boss. You don’t automatically become a leader when you reach an executive status.
One would hope that people who have worked their way up in a company are good leaders with good character traits, but this is not a prerequisite.
You don’t have to have a specific number of people working under you in order to be a leader–having people work for you simply makes you a manager.
Management and leadership are not the same thing–in fact, you don’t even have to have a job or have anyone answering to you on a regular basis in order to be a leader.
In this article, we will look at 14 characteristics and qualities of a good leader and steps you can take to build each of these characteristics.
What are the commonalities among great leaders and what qualities does a leader have to have in order to be effective?
As you’re being proactive in developing these personal characteristics, you will also be advancing your personal growth.
If you’re actively working on personal development, chances are that you have a growth mindset. This is important when it comes to gaining the qualities of a good leader because leadership skills are something that can be learned and not something that you are either born with or not born with.
Through observation, experience, and practice, you can develop the characteristics and qualities that all good leaders share.
While I will mainly focus on leadership in a professional work environment throughout this article, keep in mind that these skills can be used universally throughout your life and aren’t restricted only to those who have a career.
Let’s get started with a quick definition…
What Makes a Good Leader?
There are a lot of definitions out there for what defines a leader, but the most comprehensive, yet exact, definition I have come across was published in Forbes magazine: “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.”
Let’s break this down a bit.
Leadership is a process. It is not something you can show up and do once and then walk away. If you’re leading other people to achieve a mutual goal, you have to practice what you preach.
You have to be present during the progress so you can not only lead by telling other people what to do, but also lead by example by showing other people what to do through your own actions.
And you should never have someone else do something that you have never done yourself. You have to have personal experience for people to be willing to follow your path because it will show others that you have walked in their shoes before.
For example, let’s say you’re mentoring new employees at your company. Talking about your own experience when you were a new employee gives you credibility for being in that leadership position because you can do (or have already done) anything that will soon cross a new employee’s path.
Now, you may be thinking about some exceptions to this. For example, what about a supervisor who has a graphic designer on her team, but has no graphic design experience themselves?
This is where the manager vs. leader comes into play. In this instance, the supervisor may be managing the graphic designer, but the leadership part would only come into play when the supervisor demonstrated a good example of how team members can effectively work together, manage their time, etc.
Additionally, while the most seasoned person on the team is probably the manager, the person who is the best leader could be the newest member.
Social influence is the change that one person can initiate in someone else, whether they do so intentionally or not.
As leaders guide others toward reaching a goal, the people who choose to follow their lead are influenced by the leader’s actions. This is often in an attempt to conform to the person (or people) that is seen as a leader.
For example, let’s say a member of the team noticed something about a process that could be altered to save everyone time. This observation, along with the process of showing others the more efficient way of doing that task, is going to influence the behaviors of other team members.
This influence didn’t involve telling other people what to do, rather it was a process of encouraging team members to adopt a new method of working that would benefit them.
This definition of leadership also includes maximizing the efforts of other people. Now, aside from the fact that the word “other” is very intentional in that it does not say employees, direct reports, or anything of that nature, this portion of the definition stresses that a leader is able to help other people want to do their best work in order to achieve their goal.
Those “other people” could be at the same level of seniority as the leader, or even a higher up professional in the company. It could be anyone, regardless of their title or role.
Building leadership skills is a major part of personal development, especially if you are trying to advance in your career. If you possess the qualities of a good leader, people will look up to you, trust your judgement, and respect your thoughts and opinions.
This will help you be in the front of people’s minds when it comes time for a promotion or if a position becomes available that would advance you to a higher rank within your company.
The road to personal development and the process of being a leader have a lot in common. For example, they both involve taking risks, viewing challenges as opportunities for growth, and challenging the status quo.
On your quest toward personal development, you will be cultivating leadership skills, whether you realize it or not.
14 Qualities of a Good Leader
Now let’s talk about the 14 characteristics and qualities you should develop to become a good leader.
Having good communication skills does not just mean that you’re able to relay information properly and succinctly. A huge part of communication, especially as a leader, is to be able to listen. If people aren’t able to feel heard, they won’t be likely to follow you.
People will feel inspired when they feel heard and they will want to take an active approach in getting to know and trust you. Further, you have to allow your team’s thoughts and ideas to help form your action plan.
No one will ever be completely supportive of a direction that they had no part in creating. People have to see their ideas integrated–or have an understanding of why they weren’t used.
Consider the alternative. What would happen if you showed no interest in those who looked up to you and refused to take the time to hear about their personal experiences? Chances are, they would shut down and lose momentum and motivation to want to work with you.
Action Step: Take time on a regular basis to check in with everyone on your team individually. Find out what is working and what’s not. What changes can be made or how can their job be completed more efficiently?
2. Genuine Enthusiasm
Whatever you are leading, you have to show that you sincerely care about the results and you are passionate about the process. When leaders are able to have a genuine sense of enthusiasm, it is contagious to those around them, making the entire team enthusiastic about reaching their goal.
Going back to our definition of leadership, having genuine enthusiasm can have a social influence on your team to adopt that attitude and then put their best effort into the project at hand.
Action Step: Be efficient in your work and be open to taking on additional tasks. Offer to help people who are struggling and try to be as available as possible for the people on your team to contact you.
Adopt a proactive “go-getter” attitude about every task involved in the project. (Here's a helpful guide to creating SMART goals for project management.)
A good leader is confident in their ability to teach and develop the people around them. Because of this, they are able to empower the people that they lead to have autonomy and work on their own.
Good leaders know they have prepared their team members to face any challenges that may come their way.
Further, good leaders give other team members a participatory role in their mission that capitalizes on their individual expertise, which increases team members’ sense of self-worth and commitment to the goal.
When other people are empowered, they will be more likely to act in ways that are in the best interest of the organization or mission.
When you’re able to empower others, you can boost their confidence by showing your interest in their input.
People who feel like what they have to say is important are more likely to carry out the collective goals of the group, and it creates a secondary sense of leadership that is needed if you’re not present when key decisions need to be made so the organization can continue to run smoothly.
You may be thinking: But if I have worked so hard to become a leader, why would I want to empower other people to be able to work without me?
No one can do it all on their own. If you’re taking on a leadership role, you will rely on the collective skills of everyone on your team to reach your goal.
On the other hand, if you don’t empower your team members, you can isolate yourself from the group and put the long term success of the organization in jeopardy.
Finally, empowering those around you helps pave the way for the future leaders of your organization. This will help ensure that when you’ve left the team, the mission will continue to be carried on.
Action Step: Communicate your intent to your team members and then encourage them to make suggestions to improve the plan. Listen to them and incorporate the good ideas that people come up with before deciding on an action plan.
When you empower other people on your team, you’re not giving up your authority, you’re simply setting them up for individual success, which will translate into the success of the entire team.
The best way to show team members that you’re committed is to get down and do the work with them. Seeing a leader working alongside everyone else serves as a great motivator to others.
Proving your commitment to the ultimate goal of your team will help you earn respect and it will instill an identical hardworking drive among team members.
Setting a positive example of commitment will also lead to a greater sense of loyalty and respect for you as the one people are looking up to. Set the bar high for commitment and other people will follow in your shoes.
If you want your team to work hard and produce a high-quality outcome, you have to lead by example.
Action Step: A big part of demonstrating your commitment to your cause is to work through any conflicts that arise and make every effort to overcome obstacles.
If you show your team that you’re not willing to walk away when things get tough, they will recognize your dedication to realizing your ultimate goal.
Because an effective leader is someone that people can turn to for answers, it’s up to leaders to know how to think creatively when issues come up. Part of being a leader is being a trailblazer in a sense–someone who is paving a new path for others to follow.
Being innovative in this way requires creativity, which in itself is the desertion of rigid structures. New perspectives on existing problems from a creative point of view can lead to new and even unheard-of solutions.
In order to succeed, a team often has to create its own path. Leaders who are creative take on unexpected viewpoints that allow for new avenues to be uncovered, which can be used to create new changes to help the team grow.
Action Step: Schedule time outs. Taking time out with your team will allow you to have an unstructured environment that can spark creativity. Enjoying activities with like-minded people can lead to encouraging conversations and open brainstorming.
Great leaders know that the loyalty they show to the people who look up to them will be reciprocated.
Because they see loyalty as a two-way street, effective leaders express their loyalty in clear ways by ensuring that everyone on their team has the knowledge that they need in order to do their job as well as the resources that are required.
Loyalty also involves having team members’ backs in the face of adversity and advocating on their behalf if need be, which means it requires a strong sense of mutual trust and respect. People who believe their leaders have a sense of loyalty toward them will show loyalty in return.
Action Step: One of the best ways to show your loyalty is to be supportive during times of need. If you show up for someone in the face of adversity when the easier thing to do would be to mind your own business, it will demonstrate your sense of loyalty.
Being an inspiration to your team is an important part of focusing on your vision and goals, but it also helps keep team morale high.
Being an inspiring leader means you have the ability to drive people to perform their best and to demonstrate the qualities that you want employees to display by choice, such as passion, determination, and purpose.
Often, leaders expect team members to follow them because of their position, and this is commonly what happens. But that doesn't mean the leader inspires team members to do their best work, support each other, and contribute all they have.
Leaders have to demonstrate a work ethic in every interaction that they have that shows their team their dedication.
Action Step: Being inspiring starts with showing team members appreciation for their work. Start off by offering words of encouragement whenever they are deserved.
A good leader is focused on the task at hand and is able to rationally work through problems. They’re able to see the big picture of any situation as well as the details that are critical to fix any problems or pinpoint the cause of a problem.
Good leaders also make sure to stay on top of any relevant current information in their field and continue to view themselves as learners throughout their entire career so their work is always applicable and useful for other people.
Due to their focus, good leaders are also self-driven to do their best work in order to achieve the best results. They act as the driving force for the team, making sure that everyone stays on track to reaching their mutual goal rather than wasting time on tasks that are ultimately not productive.
Action Step: Keep track of your critical tasks every day, week, and month. You have to regularly review your goals and progress so you can determine the best use of your time.
Use tools such as the Eisenhower Matrix to help you prioritize your tasks and capitalize on your time.
9. Ability to Delegate
When you delegate a task, you’re assigning the responsibility of the task to someone else. It is common for leaders to delegate time-consuming projects to others so they can be more efficient with their time by focusing on more critical tasks that demand their full attention.
Delegating tasks also helps other people who are less experienced learn more about the project at hand, which can help set them up for success in the future.
Good leaders are able to determine the best people to delegate specific tasks to, and also realize that delegating a task can be a big performance motivator. The more responsibility that people feel for getting a job done, the more motivated they will be to get it done right.
Action Step: After establishing the tasks that you can delegate and the people you will be delegating them to, communicate your expected outcomes clearly to the person and why the job needs to be done in the first place.
Invite questions and then allow them to take complete ownership of the task.
When leaders are accountable, they’re willing to respond to the outcomes of their decisions, behaviors, and actions in every situation. Accountable leaders don’t blame others when things get tough.
Instead, they right their wrongs and do any corrective action that is necessary for the team. Accountable leaders display an accurate depiction of their team by communicating the team’s strengths and their areas for improvement.
Being accountable also involves questioning the status quo and finding the best answers.
A good leader takes responsibility for the performance of the entire team, even if the team messes up. Being an accountable leader starts with being honest, which may require putting your pride aside to admit the mistakes of your team.
Accountable leaders review their role in a situation and create an action plan to resolve problems, conflicts, and obstacles in a genuine manner. Accountability is often what draws the line between a good leader and an inferior one.
Action Step: When you do make a mistake and have to own up to it, come prepared with an idea or plan for how to fix the situation.
Being honest about your mistake is the first step, but having a solution to the problem ready when you talk to other people about your mistake will reduce any tension and demonstrate that you’re not willing to quit.
11. Positive Attitude
Nothing brings down team morale more than a negative attitude. It drains the energy of your group and takes critical attention away from your work and performance. If the leader is the person who speaks negatively or has a poor outlook, this can be detrimental.
In order to maintain a team’s momentum and keep people’s energy levels high, you have to have a positive attitude about the work that you’re doing.
Great leaders with a positive attitude purposefully display their outlook through their behaviors and communication. The key to being an inspiration to other people is to keep your spirits high no matter what.
When you see a leader with a negative attitude, you probably assume they’re mad, apathetic, challenging to work with, and certainly not happy. A bad attitude can lead to laziness, animosity, or other activities that reduce team morale and effectiveness.
Consider the difference between these two statements:
“I’m really eager about this new project, but we don’t have the money to implement it.”
“I’m really eager about this new project, so let’s come up with a way to fit it into our budget.”
Saying the same sentence without the negativity helps boost the team’s excitement and urges them to continue to look up to you as a leader.
Action Step: Try to turn any negative thing you have to say into a positive. Instead of giving up when facing a roadblock to success, consider challenges as being opportunities to think outside of the box.
You can sense charisma as soon as it walks in the door. This quality goes beyond being likable, as charismatic people are able to draw the attention of others. They naturally energize and motivate the people around them to step up and take action.
People are more likely to follow someone that they enjoy being around. Great leaders are friendly, well-spoken, caring, and approachable, which helps other people feel like they can relate to them.
Charismatic leaders have a passion that ignites powerful emotions in anyone who looks up to them.
Leaders who have charisma are also confident in their abilities, which allows other people to trust that they know what they’re doing. People are able to feel a connection and stay dedicated to people with charisma because they have strong, positive emotions when they’re in the presence of that leader.
Action Step: Celebrate your strengths and demonstrate your confidence to those around you so they can feel at ease in your presence.
Be diligent in your work and dedicated to your team so those who look up to you can feed off of your positive energy and want to hear what you have to say.
13. Ability to be Decisive
Being decisive means you can make a decision with speed and clarity. Good leaders are willing to take an appropriate amount of risk in their decision-making and then stick with the choices they make.
They’re able to weigh their options and they recognize the fact that if they make the wrong decision, they will be held accountable for that choice.
After making a decision, a good leader then acts on that and influences others to do the same. Decisiveness is a skill you can learn as well as an internal characteristic that you can call upon when you need it.
Part of being decisive is being able to recognize when you have all of the information you’re going to get before having to make a choice. Even if the information is incomplete, you’re able to choose an option despite being in the face of uncertainty.
Those who are indecisive may waste time on a decision, especially if they seek the input of a lot of people who all have varying opinions. This can also cause a leader to make a gradual decision that isn't really right for anyone.
Or they maybe suffering from analysis paralysis. Watch the video below to learn about the 7 actionable strategies you can use to overcome this mindset.
Sometimes, indecisive people simply assume that someone else will make the right decisions for them. However, these people are putting themselves at the mercy of others and have to depend on other people’s thoughts and opinions to make a change in their lives.
Furthermore, people who are indecisive are also those who procrastinate. They avoid making decisions, but in doing so, they make no progress.
Action Step: You can practice being decisive to get better at making quick, firm decisions. Start by timing yourself when you’re faced with a decision.
Small decisions, such as what’s for dinner, should be made in under a minute. Bigger decisions should be made in under five minutes, even if your decision is to do some more research so that your action plan can be made more effectively.
If you lose the trust of those who view you as a leader, it’s almost impossible to gain it back. People don’t want to follow the lead of someone whom they consider to possibly have ulterior motives.
To show that you have integrity as a leader, do what’s right all the time. And if you face an ethical dilemma, consult the handbook or bylaws or whatever policies and procedures your organization has in place to ensure people are staying within the boundaries of the rules.
Action Step: Give credit where credit is due. If someone does something noteworthy, give them the recognition that they deserve.
Also, take personal responsibility for your mistakes and be open with others about why they may have occurred and what should be done to fix them or prevent them from happening again in the future.
Final Thoughts on Characteristics of a Leader
Great leaders are able to influence other people to work towards their goals. Their leadership style is often transformational instead of transactional.
Being an effective leader is not so much about being the smartest, it’s about being understanding of other people and knowing how to get a team to work together to achieve a goal.
Whether you are trying to develop leadership skills to give you a boost in your career or you are working on personal development in your everyday life, taking these 14 characteristics of a good leader into consideration will help you present yourself as a better leader.
Looking for more resources on leadership? Be sure to check out these blog posts:
- 17 Best Leadership Books to Advance Your Career
- 31 John Wooden Quotes on Success & Leadership
- 17 Inspirational Songs About Leadership and Guiding Others
Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.
Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.