17 qualities of an exceptional leader

February 23, 2021 - 20 min read
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What defines a good leader?

How to spot a bad leader

17 traits of exceptional leaders

How to use leadership characteristics in the workplace



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Think back to the best boss you ever had. What was that person like?

More importantly: how did it feel to work for such a good leader? I’m going to guess that it motivated you to do your best work. 

Now think about your worst boss. If you’re anything like me, that person just motivated you to look for a new job. 

The leaders we follow aren’t always managers — maybe you’ve been inspired by a coach, teacher, or political figure. We can all come up with examples of outstanding leaders we’ve known. 

It’s harder to determine exactly why certain people are so good at leadership. 

This article identifies seventeen characteristics of great leaders and gives you some tips for how to exercise leadership skills in the workplace. 

What defines a good leader?

A leader is more than just a boss. In fact, good leaders don’t even need to have a management title. 

That’s because leadership isn’t about ordering people around, it’s about empowering others to achieve success for themselves and for the organization. 

Every leader has a unique style, but the good ones all have something in common: they can take a vision and turn it into real results. This isn’t something they do alone — leadership skills are people skills first and foremost.  

Great leaders have the ability to inspire those they lead.  

Boss vs leader chart

(Image Source)

Too many organizations lack leadership talent. Only 42% of business leaders and 30% of HR professionals say that their organization’s leadership quality is high overall. 

Here’s the good news: leadership skills can be developed. Any motivated person has the potential to become a good, or even great, leader

How to spot a bad leader

Sometimes the qualities of an excellent leader and a terrible one are surprisingly similar. 

Take confidence, for example. A good leader can confidently take on challenges and make big, risky decisions. But bad leaders can have a lot of confidence too. Like confidence that their ideas are never wrong or confidence that they already know everything they need to know.

So what’s the real difference between a good leader and a bad one? Here’s how you can spot a poor leader:

They don’t inspire. Leadership isn’t something you do by yourself — it’s about the people you lead. People are happy to follow excellent leaders. These leaders lift up everyone around them, not just themselves. 

Many of the seventeen leadership characteristics in this article are important for inspiring others. 

An inspiring leader makes the whole team feel good by communicating well, helping everyone succeed, and setting a great example. 

They have no vision. Bad leaders can do a lot of the same things good leaders do, like take risks and have creative ideas. But the leader’s decisions need to have purpose. 

If there doesn’t seem to be a clear, easy to communicate vision behind what employees are asked to do, they’ll quickly lose trust in their boss. 

They don’t get results. It’s simple. No leader succeeds at everything all the time, but the good ones will have something to show for their efforts. 

It doesn’t matter how many leadership characteristics a person has if they can’t put it all together to accomplish big goals. 


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17 traits of exceptional leaders

1. Drive

Great leaders aren’t passive. They’re highly motivated and they truly believe in the vision of the organization. 

This passion is contagious. Employees with a driven leader are motivated to work harder themselves. 

2. Resilience

Being the one in charge isn’t easy. 37% of managers report that they felt a lot of stress on their most recent workday. But when you’re a leader, you can’t let the non-stop challenges get you down too much. 

It’s OK to feel frustrated sometimes, but good leaders bounce back and push forward despite the hardship. In fact, they often take pleasure in overcoming obstacles through creative problem-solving. 

a chart comparing resilience and leadership effectiveness

(Image Source)

3. Integrity

It’s essential for leaders to act with honesty, integrity, and reliability. 

Employees need to know that a leader will behave ethically. That they won’t say one thing and do another. Or that if they make a mistake, they’ll take responsibility rather than blaming the team. 

Integrity means treating employees fairly and upholding the values of the company. This not only inspires trust in other team members, it encourages them to act with integrity as well. 

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

4. A desire to learn 

If you’re promoted into a leadership position, you probably already know a lot. You’ve developed your skills and gained experience in your field. 

But there’s always more to learn. Great leaders are on a constant quest for knowledge and personal development. 

5. Self-awareness

Self-awareness goes hand in hand with the desire to learn. In this case, it’s the desire to learn about yourself and what you could do better. 

Effective leaders exhibit humility. They understand their strengths and work to improve their weaknesses. Self-awareness can also help a leader develop a leadership style that fits their personality. 

A good way for leaders to develop self-awareness is to solicit feedback from employees or peers. Don’t be insulted by criticism — this is simply information to help you become a better leader. 

6. Confidence

Leaders have to make big decisions. These decisions often come with big risks. 

It’s scary being a leader. When you’re the one taking the risk, you’ll also probably shoulder the blame if things go wrong. But that’s just part of the gig. 

To be a leader, you need to be confident enough to act decisively in high-stakes situations. 

Moreover, there are always people who disagree with the leader’s decisions. While it’s important to listen to other viewpoints, a leader can’t back down in the face of criticism or conflict. 

7. Positivity

As a leader, you don’t have to be chipper all the time. You do have to pass a sense of optimism on to your employees. 

Employees like working for positive people. Out of managers rated by their employees as “great,” 79% have a positive attitude. 

8. Realism

While a positive attitude is appreciated by employees, unrealistic expectations are not. A great leader expects their team members to succeed and then makes it possible. 

If employees realize that they’re never able to achieve what the boss asks for, they’ll stop trying. 

A good leader keeps objectives optimistic but reasonable so that the team can experience a sense of accomplishment if they put in the work. 

9. Creativity

Creativity is the number one soft-skill in short supply at the workspace. Creative leaders solve problems in unique, innovative ways. They’re willing to experiment and think outside the box. 

Creativity is about seeking the best solution, even when it’s not the typical one. Creativity is also about thinking on your feet when situations change. And a creative leader doesn't try to be the lone genius, instead she taps into the innovative potential of her people.

Leaders have plans. They have visions of what might be and how things are supposed to go. But you know what they say about best-laid plans. 

Creative leaders are ready to adjust and create new options or approaches based on gaining new information or an evolving  situation. When an idea or plan isn’t working out, creative leaders look for new ways to use resources and bring their teams together to develop innovative new perspectives and approaches to the problems they're trying to solve. 

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” — Steve Jobs

10. Communication skills

Effective leadership is all about communication. If you can’t communicate well with the people you’re supposed to lead, none of the other leadership qualities on this list mean anything. 

Clarity is especially important. Out of managers rated “bad” by their employees, 58% don’t communicate clear expectations. This is immensely frustrating for the whole team. 

11. Listening Skills

Communicating well isn’t just about talking. Listening is essential for building trust and rapport with your team. 

Good listening skills help a leader understand what employees need and where their pain points are. It shows the employees that their boss really cares. 

This can be a hard quality for good leaders to develop because it’s sometimes at odds with other strong leadership traits. Leaders are confident and full of exciting ideas, which makes many of them prone to dominating the conversation. 

The best leaders know how to engage completely with what another person is saying and be open-minded about hearing new thoughts. 

12. Empathy

An empathetic leader is compassionate and knows how to connect with others. 

They care about the needs and hopes of their team members. Instead of jumping to harsh conclusions if an employee’s performance dips, they seek to understand the root cause. 

This kind of emotional intelligence builds trust and helps the leader have better insight into their team.  

13. Strategic mindset

Employees who get promoted into a management position often have great attention to detail. They were excellent in past roles because they got each step in the process right. 

But leaders have to see the big picture. 

While leaders may be involved in tactics and operations to varying degrees, they need to know when to focus on strategy and entrust the small details to another member of the team.14. An eye for talent

Good leaders create new leaders. 

Part of leadership is choosing the right people for the job and then helping those people develop their own skills. A great leader can recognize and foster leadership traits even in the most junior member of the team. 

15. The ability to motivate

True leaders inspire and motivate their followers. 

In a work setting, a great way to do this is to show appreciation for your team members and recognize their achievements. 79% of people that quit their job say it’s because of a “lack of appreciation.”

Being an excellent leader motivates employees in and of itself. Employee engagement is higher when their manager is doing a great job. 

16. The ability to delegate

As a good leader, you care deeply that every aspect of your team’s work is done well. But it’s important to trust your employees to handle pieces of the puzzle. In return, they’ll trust you to take the lead on vision and strategy. 

17. Professional expertise

Last but not least: leaders should be highly skilled and knowledgeable in their field. 

That doesn’t always mean technical competence. For example, the CEO of a software company might not know how to write code. But they should definitely have a deep knowledge of the industry and products. 

It’s that kind of expertise that lets a great leader craft an intelligent and achievable vision. 


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How to use leadership characteristics in the workplace

You don’t have to be in a management position to exercise the qualities of an exceptional leader. Leaders are the ones who help and motivate the people around them. They have good ideas and they set a good example. 

Employees at any level can have leadership characteristics. In fact, anyone who hopes to be promoted into a leadership position in the future should work on developing the traits of a leader today. 

Build strengths and overcome weaknesses

Growing into a great leader is an ongoing process, and it’s easier to do it one step at a time. Think about the list of leadership traits above and evaluate yourself honestly. Where do you excel? What do you want to work on?

For example, maybe your listening skills leave something to be desired. The next time you talk to a colleague about a project, make a conscious effort to remember each point and follow up on the important ones. 

Be a knowledge sponge

Learn everything you can about your industry and your organization. Seek out training for new skills.

You might have all the skills you need for your current position, but learning new things opens up future possibilities. If you’re already in a management role, everything you learn will help you have better ideas and develop a stronger strategy. 

Develop your people skills

Every day is a new opportunity to become a better leader by improving your people skills. Whether you’re starting an entry-level job or taking on a major leadership role, you’ll have many chances to:

  • Build relationships with your colleagues
  • Communicate clearly
  • Listen actively
  • Be patient and empathetic
  • Learn to negotiate and diffuse conflict

Do outstanding work

In other words, lead by example. 

Go above and beyond expectations and you’ll inspire others to do the same. 


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Leadership ability isn’t a mysterious quality that some people possess and others never will. It involves concrete skills that anyone, at any level of the business, can develop.

BetterUp enables organizations to develop leadership capabilities in all employees — not just the C-suite. Schedule a tailored demo. 


Published February 23, 2021

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