What makes a good leader? 18 leadership qualities explained

November 2, 2021 - 25 min read

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What is leadership?

What defines a good leader?

How to spot a bad leader

18 traits of exceptional leaders

How to improve your leadership skills

How to use leadership qualities in the workplace

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? It likely motivated you to do your best work.

Now think about your worst boss. That person may have 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.

Let’s define leadership and look at 18 important leadership characteristics. We’ll also look at some tips for developing leadership skills, as well as how to exercise these skills in the workplace.

 

What is leadership?

Leadership is about more than authority and being in charge. In fact, a successful leader doesn’t even need to have an official title.

This is because a title doesn’t automatically mean you’re a leader — especially a good one. And, not having a title doesn’t mean that you can’t be a leader.

Effective leadership isn’t about ordering people around. It’s about being a source of empowerment for others, so they can achieve success for themselves and for the organization.

Let’s look at what defines a good leader and how to spot a bad one.

What defines a good leader?

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 (aka soft skills) first and foremost.

Great leaders have the ability to inspire those they lead.

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(Image Source)

But these illusive leadership characteristics are hard to find.

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 self-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 18 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 a 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 attributes a person has if they can’t put it all together to accomplish big goals.

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18 traits of exceptional leaders

Let’s break down 18 essential qualities of a good leader in the workplace.

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 okay to feel frustrated sometimes, but good leaders work on their mental fitness continuously and push forward despite the hardship. In fact, they often take pleasure in overcoming obstacles through creative problem-solving.

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(Image Source)

3. Integrity

It’s essential for leaders to act with authenticity, 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 but also 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 are humble. 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.

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To be a leader, you need to have confidence 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. But 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. It is also about thinking on your feet when situations change. And a creative leader doesn't try to be the lone genius. Instead, they tap into the innovative potential of their people.

Leaders have plans. They have visions of what might be and how things are supposed to go. But everything doesn’t always go according to plan.

Creative leaders are ready to adjust and create new options or approaches based on 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

Great leadership is all about communication. If you’re not an effective communicator with the people you’re supposed to lead, none of the other leadership qualities or characteristics on this list mean anything.

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Clarity is especially important. According to the Predictive Index People Management Study, out of managers rated “bad” by their employees, 58% don’t communicate clear expectations. This can be immensely frustrating for the whole team.

So, developing good communication skills is an important part of becoming a strong leader.

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 leaders to develop because it’s sometimes at odds with other good leadership qualities. Strong leaders are confident and full of exciting ideas, which makes many of them prone to dominating the conversation.

The best leaders balance opposing characteristics and know how to engage completely with what another person is saying while remaining 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.

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to use emotion to increase your own and others’ success” — Annie McKee

13. Decision-making

Part of being a leader is making decisions — and a lot of them. Because of this, a leader needs to know how to make decisions both efficiently and effectively.

Leaders will have to make small decisions every day. But they’ll also have to make big decisions that affect their team and even their organization as a whole.

14. 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.

Leaders may be involved in tactics and operations to varying degrees. But they also need to know when to focus on strategy and entrust the small details to another member of the team.

15. 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 members of the team.

16. 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.

“Leadership is hard to define, and good leadership even harder. But if you can get people to follow you to the ends of the earth, you are a great leader” — Indra Nooyi

17. 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.

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Delegating responsibilities can also help everyone feel like they are contributing to the team.

18. Professional expertise

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.

How to improve your leadership skills

Now that you know about 18 qualities that great leaders possess, let’s look at some tips for how you can develop these qualities.

1. Perform an inventory of your leadership skills

It’s hard to improve your leadership skills if you don’t know where you’re lacking. Because of this, one of the very first things you should do is take an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses in leadership.

You can use our list of 18 traits above to do this. Consider each quality, and ask yourself:

  • “Do I naturally possess this trait?”
  • “How do I demonstrate this trait in my work and personal life?”
  • “Do I use this trait in a leadership capacity? If so, how?”
  • “If I feel like I’m lacking in this area, is this a skill I would like to develop?”

You can also ask others for feedback, such as friends, colleagues, or even your boss. Because they know you well and may have even worked with you, they can provide valuable insight into your strengths and weaknesses.

2. Set goals

Once you know which skills you’re good at and which you need to improve, you can set tangible goals in order to become a better leader.

In the areas that you lack, you can set goals for how to further develop. In areas that you think you’re doing well in, you can set goals for how to use these skills in a leadership capacity.

For example, let’s say you lack positivity. In order to develop this trait, you could start keeping a gratitude journal that you write in every morning. This way, you start consciously focusing on the good in your life.

3. Seek out opportunities to practice

One of the best ways to better yourself is through practice. If you want to develop new leadership skills, or utilize ones you already possess, you need to seek out leadership opportunities that will challenge you.

This could be volunteering to lead a team at work. It could also be mentoring someone new at your company.

4. Get help from others

Seeking help from others is an important step in improving your leadership skills. It allows you to learn from others and see perspectives you may not have considered on your own.

Consider leadership training. This could be something your work offers, or you may need to seek out courses on your own. Alternatively, you could work with a coach who can help you map out a development plan and stay on track to reach your goals.

You should let your boss know about your intentions. They can likely help you find resources and give you opportunities to practice your leadership skills.

How to use leadership qualities 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 set a good example.

Employees at any level can have leadership qualities. 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.

Let’s look at ways you can use leadership qualities in the workplace.

Build strengths and overcome weaknesses

Find conscious opportunities in the workplace where you can further develop your strengths or work to overcome your weaknesses.

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 can do this through self-directed learning, or you can participate in formal programs. You can also utilize learning modes such as microlearning.

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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, continuing to 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:

Do outstanding work

In other words, lead by example. Go above and beyond expectations, and you’ll inspire others to do the same.

Use leadership qualities to be a better leader

Leadership qualities aren’t mysterious attributes that some people possess and others never will. Instead, being a leader involves concrete skills that anyone, at any level of the business, can develop.

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

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Published November 2, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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