26 Most Common Traits Of All Great Leaders (A to Z)
While there may be no single formula for great leadership, the ingredients are always the same.
There is no single formula for leadership. My mentor, the father of modern management theory Peter Drucker, once said to me, ” The only thing common among all of the great leaders I have known, is that they all have followers!” Indeed! So how do you cultivate a following that is deserving of your vision? While there may be no formula, there are similarities that I’ve studied among all of the great leaders I’ve worked with. To keep it simple and memorable I’ve summarized them into what I call The Alphabet of A Leader.
Take a look and see how you measure up. Better yet, take the list and every day for the next 26 days go through each one and see how you express that quality of leadership on any given day.
Leadership is a journey of learning, humility, and courage. Hopefully this list will help to remind of you of why it’s so much a part of your life’s journey.
A – Authentic – There is little doubt that this is at the top of the list of characteristics that everyone admires in a leader. But being authentic means being totally comfortable with yourself and your actions. Humans have an instinctive ability to sniff out a lack of authenticity in everything from body language to the intonation and cadence of someone’s voice. Think of this a a 24/7 lie detector test. You may pass it once or twice, but authenticity is a round-the-clock lie detector that can’t be fooled.
B – Bold – Bold is not brazen. What I’m referring to here is the ability to show courage, decisiveness, and just plain old hutzpah when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. Mind you that being bold alone doesn’t make you a leader. You actually need to show that your boldness creates value not just daring.
C – Competitive – I’ve yet to meet a successful person who does not have a deeply rooted competitive streak. Being successful is fundamentally about needing to win; the reasons vary, but the determination doesn’t. Successful people obsess over creative ways to get a leg up on their competition. And they hate losing with an abiding passion. People often confuse this with work ethic. But working hard isn’t the objective. It’s the competitive drive to do more than anyone else in pursuit of your dream that paves the pathway to success.
D – Driven – I often ask fledgling entrepreneurs if they “want” or “need” to start their own company. If the answer is “want” I’m always suspect of their likelihood of success. The drive to lead has to be deeply rooted in your DNA. The reasons are very personal, but they are unyielding and that’s why they are also so foundational to your drive.
E – Energized – I have yet to meet an effective leader who does not posses nearly extraordinary stamina. Keeping that stamina going means keeping yourself healthy and rested. Far too many leaders burn themselves out long before their organization has achieved its potential because they didn’t keep their own batteries recharged. When you’re running at full throttle you need to take time to take care of yourself. Emotionally and physically. That may be as simple as a short meditation or a full-on workout, a hobby that indulges you, a philanthropic cause, or a spontaneous getaway. Whatever it is, the purpose is to avoid burnout, stay centered, and remind yourself of why you’re making the sacrifices you’re making.
“When you’re running at full throttle you need to take time to take care of yourself. Emotionally and physically.”
F – Fearless – There is no such thing a leader who does not face the certainty of uncertainty. It’s those moments when your leadership skills are tested most. Anyone can take the helm when the waters are calm. It takes a special person to keep an even keel in the storm. But more to the point, great leaders refuse to be defined by their failures. Nobody is 100% successful. Success is a net positive outcome that always includes an abundance of failure, experimentation, and learning. Scientists tell us that the universe itself exists only because there was an incredibly slight margin of matter over antimatter, amazingly just one particle per billion; it took a lot of destruction to create what’s left. If you fear failure, then, by definition, you are avoiding success. Get over it; the universe leans towards success!
G – Grateful – Express gratitude for both the people who have helped you to achieve success but also for the responsibility you have. Leaders do not take their position lightly. They understand that it is a privilege they have been given to lead and are grateful for it on a daily basis.
H – Honest – You can’t lead in the absence of followers. And people won’t follow for long if they can’t depend on your honesty. Absolutely nothing is more erosive to leadership than distrust, nothing!
I – Inspirational – This doesn’t have to be the rah-rah-kumbaya around the campfire type of inspiration. What’s key is that you accept the fact that people are looking to you for the motivation to exceed their known limits. If you lose sight of that you’re no longer a leader, you’re simply a manager.
J – Just – Equity in how you deal with people is paramount. One of the things that we all pay close attention to is how we are treated relative to our peers. It’s instinctive. If you do not project an image of fairness and equity you will lose devotion and loyalty. If you are seen as equitable people will go we beyond what’s required to earn your admiration.
K – Knowledgeable – Keep in mind that what I’m listing here are qualifies of great leaders. While it’s certainly possible to find leaders who know little about the tasks and work of those they lead, it is simply not possible to gain respect and buy-in for the vision of a leader who does not posses an understanding of the work being done.
L – Loyal – Leadership is often seen as demanding loyalty from followers. However, the best leaders understand that they need to be just as loyal to those who chose to follow them. Loyal leadership is about showing up, being supportive, and providing a safe space for people to experiment and innovate.
M – Memorable – Now, this isn’t something you necessarily strive to be as a leader, yet it is clearly something all great leaders have in common. However, I’ll provide you with a simple quote that will make being memorable more than just an outcome but an action; “make decisions based on what you will be proud to have decided.”
N – Networker – One of the most consistently common traits of successful people is their ability to relentlessly work their network. All success is built on a network of human connections that need to be nurtured and reinforced.
“Successful people do not lose their sense of purpose or direction in a crisis, and by doing so create a reliable compass setting for those around them.”
O – Obsessive – Yeah, this one drives everyone who surrounds a successful person crazy. But it also drives excellence. This seems to fly in the face of the popular mantra, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” but most successful leaders got there by doing just that when they were the ones doing the small stuff; they never stopped.
P – Persistent – If one thing differentiates all of the most effective leaders I’ve met and worked with it is their dogged perseverance, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Successful people do not lose their sense of purpose or direction in a crisis, and by doing so create a reliable compass setting for those around them.
Q – Qualified – Look, this one is simple; you can’t fake a pedigree. However, qualification isn’t about university degrees and previous titles. Yes, that helps, but it’s how life has prepared you to be exactly where you are right now and why you are the best person for THIS job. You don’t get to pick “how” qualified you are. It’s the culmination of thousands of individual decisions that have made you who and what you are.
R – Responsible – Inevitably even the most brilliant successes will falter. Owning the failure is a trait that not only engenders trust but also demonstrates to others that failure is not something to be hidden or passed on to the next person in line.
S – Strong – Here’s one of the most amazing things about great leaders, they are horribly flawed individuals. In other words they have just as much baggage to tote around as the rest of us. But here is where they differ. They have incredible internal strength to stay the course, to believe in themselves and their convictions, and they sustain themselves without many existential accolades. The reason is that they recognize and are true to their inner strengths, and ultimately these overshadow any flaws they may have.
“True vision isn’t about using a crystal ball as much as it is about navigating the obstacle and opportunities that no crystal ball could ever foretell.”
T – Tactful – I don’t care how determined or convinced you are in your decisions you will still have to negotiate with others to get even the simplest things done. That is the art of tact, the mindful process of understanding the needs and desires of others in order to give them the wins that they need in order to to help you get the wins that you need. And the simplest aspect of tact is to listen at least twice as much as you talk. Really, try it!
U – Unwavering – One of the greatest determinants of success is the ability to keep your head in a firestorm. Great leaders understand the importance of staying the course when circumstances may distract and dissuade most people.
V – Visionary – In repeated studies Delphi Group has done over the years the single greatest value that people see in leadership is the ability to navigate uncertainty. Vision isn’t just about predicting the next big thing. That is a wonderful by-product of vision but not a reliable one for most mortals. What people are relying on you for is the ability to survive the inevitable buffeting of the future. True vision isn’t about using a crystal ball as much as it is about navigating the obstacle and opportunities that no crystal ball could ever foretell.
W – Wary – This is one of the most important and yet difficult lessons of leadership. By Wary I’m referring specifically to the praise of others and the importance of discounting it. Successful people find that their jokes get funnier and the number of people who agree with them rises exponentially as they move into leadership roles. I’ve sat in conference rooms with CEOs and EVPs of F500 companies who are treated like deities. Great leaders do not let it get to their head. They realize that agreement and adoration does not constitute infallibility.
X – Xenial – Okay, I’ll admit “X” is a tough one, and yet, Xenial is the perfect word for a classic characteristic I’ve noticed among even the most hard-nosed leaders. While they may be extraordinarily tough on their own team, they have the most amazing ability to turn on the charm when needed. Even the toughest and most callous CEOs become models of charm and deference when they are in front of customers. They realize that the only reason they are where they are is because of the loyalty of their customers and the marketplace. Want an example, Steve Jobs, enough said?
Y – Yearning – There is an undeniable yearning in the heart of every great leader for what’s to come. They are never satisfied with the status quo, in fact, they outright despise it. They look for the fear in the eyes of others and use it as a compass to drive towards the opportunity that everyone else is terrified of. The yearning never ends; it is what defines their reason for existing. Yes, it’s that strong.
Z – Zealous – This is a close corollary to Yearning. The Zeal with which great leaders face each challenge is almost childlike. It knows few bounds. Even when faced with a lack of support from their closest allies, great leaders will find a reason to get excited and that will inevitably get others excited. And that is ultimately the calling of leadership, to help us see that which gives each of us purpose and meaning, and allows us to be part of something much greater than ourselves.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.