What is a leader, and how do you become one?

March 29, 2021 - 13 min read

confident-woman-in-blue-headscarf-gestures-with-hand-what-is-a-leader

Jump to section

What is a leader?

What are the most common characteristics of a leader?

Leadership versus management—what’s the difference?

How can you become a better leader?

Final thoughts on the question, “What is a leader?” 

When you think about great leaders, who comes to mind?

Impactful figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., or perhaps Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela might come to mind.

But defining what truly marks these historic icons as good leaders proves a bit more challenging. Was it simply their position that made them good leaders, or was it something more?

While we’ve all experienced leadership in our lives, very rarely are we asked to define “what is a good leader.” Answers vary from company to company and person to person, making the qualities of leadership even more elusive to pinpoint.

Are you thinking about the next step in your career? This article explores the definition and qualities of leadership, how it differs from management, and tips for becoming a better leader.

What is a leader?

Simple explorations of the question, “what is a leader?” include:

  1. A leader is someone who inspires passion and motivation in followers.
  2. A leader is someone with a vision and the path to realizing it.
  3. A leader is someone who ensures their team has support and tools to achieve their goals.

A leader may be any of those things, but a good leader is all three. 

An effective leader has a shared vision aligned with core values and understands what it will take to reach their team goals. They inspire, manage, and support their teams to work creatively and confidently toward that shared vision.

A leader empowers their team members to embrace their own unique leadership qualities and act with independently accountable passion. And they inspire and motivate their teams to maintain long-term progress and excitement towards achieving their goals.

What are the most common characteristics of a leader?

Leaders are bold but never leave their teams behind. Balancing vision with support that empowers team members to achieve shared goals, leaders embrace a number of leadership qualities and can’t be pinned down to a single style.

However, leaders across the board tend to exhibit seven major characteristics: 

  1. Purpose. Without a sense of purpose, it’s hard to motivate team members. Leaders empower people to see the intention behind specific goals, enabling them to take equal part. Making the day-to-day process feel more purposeful helps maintain team motivation and personal investment in larger goals.

    Leaders who incorporate a sense of personal purpose in the company’s overall mission inspire individual accountability in their teams. This motivates team members to embrace their own leadership qualities towards big-picture achievement. 
  2. Motivation. Leaders are great motivators and create value-aligned goals so team members feel personally inspired to work toward the company’s vision. Paired with consistent outreach, leaders empower their team members to work passionately beyond their responsibilities towards a common goal.

    Motivation goes beyond inspiring words. Great leaders talk to their teams, and listen to their ideas and questions. Being a leader isn’t about giving orders and managing results—it’s about listening, supporting, and inspiring the best from others.
  3. Vision. Leaders see the bigger picture and can unite their team members behind their vision. By incorporating team strengths and core values, leaders inspire their team with an end-goal that resonates with individual values and inspires action.

    Without a cohesive vision aligned with core values, companies often find themselves hitting goals that don’t progress their company in a specific direction. Staying afloat does not equal growth. Leaders are visionaries for growth and expansion.
  4. Empathy. Leaders empathize with their team members. It’s how they inspire people to work beyond their responsibilities toward a shared purpose. By listening and sharing their appreciation for their teams, leaders impart a sense of value. When leaders prioritize empathy and appreciate their team members’ efforts, they can empower team members to see the vision for themselves and act toward its achievement. Putting themselves in the position of their team members also helps leaders address critical concerns and provide solutions.
  5. Creativity. Whereas managers might feel inclined to stick to the status quo, leaders innovate in bold and creative splashes. Rather than being concerned with the chain of command, leaders encourage their employees to ask, “Why?” and think in new ways to realize a bigger picture.

    With a lofty vision guiding them, leaders embrace new ways of conceptualizing and strategizing. Nothing is off the table when it comes to providing imaginative and more effective pathways to long-term goal achievement and success. 
  6. Team vision. Although the company's overall vision may begin with its leaders, their vision will account for nothing if it doesn’t speak to team members.

    Exploring the values and individual goals that bring meaning to team members helps leaders thread their long-term goals through individually motivating and fulfilling achievement. When team members share their leader's vision and values, they’re inspired to work beyond their responsibilities toward their goals.  
  7. Always trying to improve. Leaders never stop bettering themselves. With an eye toward growth, leaders continuously seek opportunities to improve for themselves and their teams. This leaning towards personal betterment means leaders actively seek feedback and value ideas that favor effectiveness and improvement over defending their egos.

    When leaders create an environment where feedback isn’t just helpful but highly valued, they inspire team members to voice their thoughts and bring the best ideas to the table. This can lead to higher innovation and long-term success.
 

Leadership versus management — what’s the difference?

We often hear managers referred to as leaders and vice versa. But while qualities of leadership might include managerial responsibilities, they certainly don’t stop there. 

Managers often work within a chain of command, limiting their ability to free the reins and innovate toward a large-scale vision. Managers ensure timely delivery of projects, project assignments, and facilitate interpersonal communication.

Leaders ask questions, embracing innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, alongside honest feedback and transparency. Leaders seek to empower their teams to embrace their individual leadership qualities. They foster a team of highly motivated and innovative leaders intent on achieving a shared vision. 

Leaders must manage their employees, keeping them on track to achieve goals and providing structure for work. But in addition to managerial duties, they're also charged with visionary thinking, creating work that feels purposeful and meaningful, and inspiring long-term commitment in each of their team members. 

inclusive-leadership-report-cta

How can you become a better leader?

There’s always room to become a better leader, and the specific steps you take may vary by experience level, personal attributes, and goals. But no matter where you are on your leadership journey, you can follow these three steps to become a better leader.

Step 1: Listen and learn

Leadership is about social skills, not power and control. The most effective leaders take time to listen and learn about their team members and the unique qualities of leadership they each have. 

Create opportunities for your team members to capitalize on their strengths and maximize their efficiency. Ask for feedback and inquire about employee ideas. The more team members feel personally valued, the more you’ll embolden them to work with passion toward goals they believe in and care about. 

Step 2: Create shared goals for the team

Leaders know where they want to go and take time to learn about team members’ personal goals and visions. This can help ensure everyone feels valued and encompassed in the company’s larger mission. 

Explore your team members’ core values and incorporate them into larger, team- and company-wide goals. You’ll help your team members find more meaning and fulfillment in their work, motivating them to work beyond assigned tasks towards innovation.

Step 3: Always seek opportunities to improve

Leaders are growth-minded and take every opportunity to better themselves and their teams. 

Who is a leader you look up to? What is a leadership role you can see yourself in, and who is currently in that role? Get to know those leaders better, and consider asking one of them to mentor you. 

You may also find opportunities for improvement from your colleagues and team members. Provide opportunities for open conversation and feedback across all levels of your organization. 

When providing feedback to others, pair transparent communication with additional resources for team members to sharpen their skills and maximize their strengths. This will enable them to bring their best to every situation, and provide more creative feedback.

BE THE FIRST TO KNOW

Stay up to date with new resources and insights.

Subscribe

Final thoughts on the question, “What is a leader?”

Regardless of recognition or position in a company, leaders mark themselves by their abilities to envision, motivate, strategize, and support their teams toward achievement.

They are more than managers — they are innovative and inspire others to join them on their mission toward a greater vision. And they know there’s always room to improve their leadership skills, ideas, and output, so they rely on mutual support with their team members.

woman-hops-stepping-stones-in-space-download-future-minded-leader-report

Published March 29, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

Read Next

Leadership & Management
24 min read | April 8, 2022

How to Become a Great Leader: 10 Tips, 7 Traits and 5 Challenges

Interested in how to become a good leader? What about becoming a great leader? Being a good (or great) leader isn't impossible or difficult. Explore how. Read More
Leadership & Management
26 min read | July 12, 2022

18 qualities of a good leader: characteristics and traits to embody

Leadership qualities can help you become a manager, get promoted, or develop your team. Learn what makes a good leader and how to embody the traits yourself. Read More
Leadership & Management
6 min read | December 11, 2020

3 Essential Traits for Leaders in Turbulent Times

Strong leaders need to have a number of personal qualities. Let's dive into three qualities that I believe allow leaders to reframe and reimagine what is possible. Read More
Leadership & Management
18 min read | June 1, 2021

Power versus influence: How to build a legacy of leadership

Learn the difference between power and influence, what their sources are, when to use one or the other, and how mastering both can help you become a better leader. Read More
Coaching
19 min read | September 1, 2021

How leadership coaching helps leaders get (and keep) an edge

Are leaders born or made? We think they’re developed. Learn what leadership coaching is, what a program should include, and what leaders might gain from it. Read More
Leadership & Management
15 min read | March 29, 2022

Humility in leadership: The unsung skill of great leaders

What we need from leaders is changing. Learn why humility in leadership is key in driving collaboration, innovation, and success within your organization. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.