Qualities of a Leader: Top 20 Leadership Traits

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Leadership qualities can be difficult to label because leadership itself is so present in our lives that traits can be hard to identify and define. Leadership can take many forms, from historical figures to project managers and business managers. They all lead their teams to successful ends by providing them with the direction, confidence, tools and resources that they need. But what are the qualities of a leader?

Here’s where things get tricky. Ask a dozen people what leadership looks like to them and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers. To help define the elusive quality of leadership, we’ve gone through those core values and found 20 leadership traits that have been validated by proven business leaders and other experts.

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1. Communication Skills

Leaders must have excellent communication skills. While communication skills are considered by many as a soft skill that you’re born with, that’s not completely true. You can improve your verbal and non-verbal communication skills through self-improvement techniques or educational programs.

Communication skills are also tightly related to other leadership qualities that we’ll explore later such as emotional intelligence, self-confidence, self-esteem and empathy for others.

2. Problem-Solving Skills

Leaders have the responsibility of guiding teams through challenges to reach objectives. To do so, leaders must be capable individuals who excel at problem-solving. Problem-solving involves being able to diagnose the causes of a problem, create strategies to solve it, choose the best course of action and implement solutions.

3. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence can be simply defined as the ability to manage one’s emotions. It sounds simple, but perceiving, understanding and controlling our own feelings can be challenging, especially under the stressful conditions leaders face. Emotional intelligence and conflict management are critical leadership qualities because they allow you to promote team cohesion and provide team members with a collaborative, friendly environment.

4. Self Esteem

Self-esteem is tightly closed to emotional intelligence. If we don’t have self-esteem, it becomes hard to control our emotions and have empathy for others. Therefore, a good leader must strive to build self-esteem as this helps with other important leadership qualities such as self-confidence and communication skills.

5. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the position of other people and see the world through their lenses. This is an important quality of a leader because as one, you’ll always be around people, such as the team members you work with or the stakeholders who are impacted by your projects.

6. Positive Attitude

Some leadership traits can be taught and others learned from experience. Then there are those that are an X factor and they’re not so easily defined. One of these is a positive attitude. A positive attitude is inspirational, another X factor, and when someone has it they’re more likely to get people behind them to do anything and everything to enact their vision.

7. Accountability

It’s impossible to think about any leader without this leadership trait. Accountability is simply the willingness of accepting responsibility for our actions. An accountable leader isn’t only aware of his actions and decisions but is also responsible for the success or failure of his or her team. That doesn’t mean accountable leaders won’t make mistakes or fail, but they should always be transparent with their team and stakeholders.

8. Adaptability

Adaptability helps leaders better guide their teams through crises or constantly changing environments. Leaders should be able to quickly come up with strategies and create action plans and contingency measures for any situation that involves risk or uncertainty. If you’re looking to kickstart your adaptability, download our free action plan template for Excel below.

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9. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking helps leaders make decisions based on data, physical evidence, observations or other tangible information rather than arbitrary decisions. A good leader uses critical thinking skills to gather project management information, analyze it and then use it as input for decision-making.

10. Personal Development

Personal development, as a leadership trait, is the willingness to improve your skills or personal traits where you need there’s room for improvement. As with other qualities of a leader in this list, personal development can positively impact other traits such as your self-esteem and self-confidence.

11. Risk Taking

Leaders aren’t big risk-takers, they should act as risk managers instead. This means you should be capable of identifying potential risks that could affect your project, measuring the likelihood of those risks and creating risk management strategies to control them if they were to happen.

With that said, leaders shouldn’t always avoid risk. Always be open to new ideas and be able to assess risk and estimate potential benefits.

12. Team Building

A myth about leadership is that it comes from one person as if they’re somehow touched by divine providence. That’s just not true. Ask any successful leader and they’ll tell you that they surround themselves with a multitude of perspectives to help steer their decision-making.

This isn’t a new idea. Diogenes of Sinope lived 400 years before the birth of Christ, and this Greek philosopher noted that “wise leaders generally have wise counselors because it takes a wise person themselves to distinguish them.” Beware the leader who acts without counsel, for they’ll soon be alone in the wilderness.

13. Curiosity and Creativity

Anyone can become a leader, but according to a meta-analysis of leadership published in the Harvard Business Review, those who are “more adjusted, sociable, ambitious and curious are much more likely to become leaders.” A well-adjusted, social and ambitious individual will rise to a leadership position.

Curious people seek new solutions to old problems. They’re constantly trying new things and new ideas, and even when they find the answer to one problem, they’re never complacent. Great leaders are tireless in their pursuit of better ways to do things, which means they’re keeping their organization innovative and competitive. For more motivation, read our 25 most inspiring leadership quotes.

14. Constructive Criticism

It’s become cliché that surrounding yourself with yes-men is going to “yes” you to ruin. A leader doesn’t want validation. Constructive criticism is valuable, even if you disagree. That’s because it provides perspective and shows you a problem from a vantage point you might have ignored or overlooked.

The most famous example of this leadership trait is Abraham Lincoln, who assembled a Cabinet whose members had different points of view than the president, sometimes radically so. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that Lincoln wanted to hear strong voices of dissent, encouraged without fear of retaliation. But the final decision, after hearing strong arguments for and against, sat solely with Lincoln.

15. Active Listening

Leadership is all about communicating. You must communicate your vision. Explain how you’re planning to implement it so you can inspire those on your team and report to those to whom you’re responsible. All of these are essential communication skills for effective leaders.

But if you’re not listening, then you’re just barking orders, and that’s a pathway to failure. Active listening is a leadership trait that was first developed by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson in the 1980s. They argue that listening isn’t a passive activity, but rather listening can change attitudes. Active listening helps people become less defensive and authoritarian, making them more democratic, emotionally mature and open to experience. All of which help a leader rally the troops.

16. Self Confidence

According to a study conducted at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2016, “the key to a successful, creative leader is confidence.” Leadership isn’t only about motivating people, but also about coming up with ideas. An abusive leader creates only stress. Confidence, on the other hand, doesn’t need to bolster itself by humiliating others. Confidence leads by creating a collaborative and creative environment.

Naturally, being overly confident is no confidence at all. That’s arrogance, and it falls squarely into the abusive leadership camp and should be avoided. But staying genuinely positive and confident is contagious and gives those working for the leader the same optimistic attitudes that lead to more creative engagement.

17. Servant Leadership

It sounds like an oxymoron, but servant leadership is an effective managerial style. There’s a long history of servant leaders, such as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jane Goodall. A servant leader may be at the top of the power pyramid, but they share that power by putting the needs of others ahead of their own.

In terms of business, this approach creates connections among employees and strengthens relationships, which leads to increased productivity. It gives teams more autonomy, results in buy-in to the project and gives teams the confidence and freedom to work successfully. Servant leaders make sure their staff has the resources they need to work hard while avoiding administrative and political hurdles.

18. Integrity

More and more people believe that integrity is the true hallmark of a great leader, over competitiveness or other assumed leadership traits. According to a poll conducted in 2016 by Robert Half Management Resources, three-fourths of participants, including workers and management, chose integrity as a top attribute of corporate leaders.

Having integrity sets the right example from the top down, but it also means being transparent with employees and advocating for your team. Integrity is a business asset, too, in that an ethical managerial style attracts investors, customers and talent. Having a trustworthy leader benefits the organization inside and out.

19. Decision Making

At its core, leadership is about making decisions. If you don’t want there to be something rotten in your company, you must have a leader who can pull the trigger when the time is right.

Leadership guru Tony Robbins notes that a leader is the one who has to make those difficult decisions. “The ability to be decisive can mean the difference between getting through tough times and folding under pressure,” he writes. Therefore, a leader can’t be a people-pleaser. Some of the decisions won’t be well-received by everyone, but good judgment ensures that they’re for the best. That’s one cornerstone for a respected leader.

20. Improvisation

Instincts don’t always provide a strong foundation for great leadership, but sometimes, it’s foolish to ignore them. As a leader, there are times when your intuition is needed to make quick decisions and there’s some improvisation that needs to take place.

If you have the experience and the knowledge, then much of your leadership is going to be like muscle memory. That is, you’ll be able to react faster than you can think. That doesn’t mean the thinking is bad, but it’s like what Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

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Keep Track of Your Team

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Manage Projects, Programs and Portfolios

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