Jump to section
Think back to the best boss you ever had. What was that person like?
They probably possessed leadership qualities like active listening, confidence, and the ability to motivate others. As a result, you likely accomplished your best work and loved your job while under their leadership.
At some point on your career path, you might want to learn some of these leadership qualities yourself. Maybe you’re ready to meet your full potential as a manager or team leader. Or, maybe you want to start developing your leadership skills so that you can get your next promotion.
Whatever your reason, knowing the qualities of a good leader can help you grow professionally and succeed at work. It can also help you spot leadership potential in your direct reports — or call out a bad leader when necessary.
Let’s define leadership and look at the 18 most important leadership characteristics. We’ll also share some tips for developing your leadership skills and show you how to exercise those skills in the workplace.
What is leadership?
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.
Though some people think leadership is about ordering people around, it’s really about being a source of empowerment for others so they can achieve success for themselves and for the organization. It’s also about being able to make decisions in favor of the bigger picture or the organization’s goals, rather than for your own gain.
18 qualities of a good leader
Anyone can call themselves a leader. But to make an impact on your organization or your team, you need to learn a few essential leadership qualities. If you can start living out these characteristics, you’ll see your career grow and your team thrive.
Let’s break down 18 essential qualities of a good leader in the workplace.
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.
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 dishearten you — adaptability and resiliency are key.
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.
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 have a growth mindset — they’re on a constant quest for knowledge and personal development.
One of the most important leadership qualities is humility. Good leaders 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.
Leaders have to make big decisions, and these decisions often come with big risks. It can scary being a leader because 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.
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. They need to have the self-confidence to brush off the people who doubt them and trust their intuition when they know they’re making the right choice.
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.
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.
According to a study from Linkedin, creativity is the number one soft skill in short supply in the workplace. 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, and thinking on your feet when situations change. Plus, a creative leader doesn't try to be the lone genius. Instead, they tap into the innovative potential of their people.
When an idea or plan isn’t working out, creative leaders also 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 don’t have good communication skills, none of the other leadership qualities or characteristics on this list mean anything. You won’t be able to get through to the people you’re supposed to lead, and that will have detrimental effects on your team and your organization.
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 and disheartening for the whole team.
That means effective communication is one of the most important leadership qualities you can develop.
11. Listening skills
Communicating well isn’t just about talking. Active 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, which 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.
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
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.
While leaders will have to make small decisions every day, 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 management were excellent in past roles, getting every step right and showing great attention to detail.
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
Though leaders care deeply that every aspect of their team’s work is done well, it’s important to trust your employees to handle their own pieces of the puzzle.
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.
What defines a good leader?
We’ve shared the 18 most important qualities that should be part of your leadership development — but every leader has a unique style. You’ll determine your own style over time, combining these leadership qualities with your own ingenious methods of supporting your team.
That said, outstanding leaders have one fundamental trait 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. Excellent leaders also have the ability to inspire those they lead. Unfortunately, these elusive leadership characteristics can be hard to find.
Too many organizations lack indispensable leadership talent. In fact, only 42% of business leaders and 30% of HR professionals say that their organization’s leadership quality is high overall.
Watch out for these negative leadership qualities
Sometimes the qualities of an excellent leader and a terrible one are surprisingly similar. If you want to evolve into a better leader yourself or help develop one on your team, you’ll need to pay close attention to certain traits.
Let’s say someone appears to have many essential leadership qualities. They’re confident, great at delegating, and wonderful at execution. But if you take a closer look, you might see that this person intimidates their direct reports into doing their work for them, and then takes all the credit. This individual is clearly not fit for leadership — at least not until they learn to overcome these negative behaviors.
But what about within yourself? Maybe you think you’re ready for a promotion, yet your colleagues keep getting opportunities that aren’t offered to you. That could mean it’s time for some self-reflection. You may unknowingly have some bad habits that are preventing you from stepping into your full potential.
The good news is that we’re here to help with a list of negative leadership characteristics to watch out for. If you see one of these dispositions or qualities in yourself or your employees, it may be time for some self-development and inner work.
Here are the most common character traits that are detrimental to anyone who wants to step into a leadership role:
- Lack of vision: Inadequate leaders can do a lot of the same things good leaders do. But the leader’s decisions need to have a purpose, such as driving the team closer to the business’s strategic goals. 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.
- Inability to produce results: It’s simple. No leader succeeds at everything all the time, but the excellent ones will have something to show for their efforts.
- Uninspiring: If an individual can’t uplift, motivate, or inspire others, they’ll need to learn how before they can be a good leader. That’s because leadership isn’t something you do by yourself — it’s about the people you lead.
- Overconfidence: A good leader is dauntless — they can confidently take on challenges. But poor leaders can have a lot of confidence and take risks, too. If they’re cocky, presumptuous, or arrogant, they have a lot to learn before becoming a leader.
- Apathy: Too many people come to their jobs without feeling a sense of investment or ownership in their work. This can cause them to produce sloppy work and even have negative relationships with coworkers. This trait will be a major obstacle to anyone who wants to be a great leader.
How to improve your leadership skills
So maybe you saw yourself in some of those negative leadership characteristics. Don’t worry — we’re all human, and we all have room to enhance our leadership skills, no matter our stage of life or job title.
Here are a few tips for how you can start improving your leadership abilities today.
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?”
It can also be beneficial to 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.
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, for example.
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.
1. 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 significant ones.
2. 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.
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.
3. 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
4. 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.
Vice President of Alliance Solutions