Characteristics of Leadership & Leadership Qualities and Traits

© | Pieter-Pieter

Different people will have different ideas of what a great leader is like. There is no single mould to craft a leader, but leadership comes in all shapes and sizes.

While great leaders can be found in a number of industries and walk their unique journeys to the top, there are certain traits and characteristics these great men and women often share. Whether you analyze leaders or ask people directly, the below set of qualities and abilities gets a mention.


Let’s first examine some of the abilities you should focus on as a leader. The following characteristics will make leading easier, as well as help you communicate your leadership vision to others.

A positive attitude

Leadership without a positive attitude is rather difficult to achieve. Who would like to follow a leader who seems pessimistic or angry at all times? A great leader knows leadership is about leading with example. If you are able to stay positive in the face of difficulties and you can approach challenges with a smile on your face, you set an example for subordinates.

Great leaders have done their homework in terms of the science of positive thinking. Positive attitude is not just about keeping the mood upbeat within the team – it can provide better results for the team in terms of productivity and innovation. A popular example of this comes in the form of a candle test, which researchers have used to study positive emotions.

Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, has written about the experiment. The experiment asks the participants to attach a candle to the wall without the wax dripping on the table. Participants are provided with a matchbook, a candle and a box of thumbtacks as the only tools they can use. Quite surprisingly, the more rewards the participants are offered, the slower they are at solving the conundrum. The experiment highlights, according to Pink, the essence of positive thinking instead of rewards and punishment as the core of leadership.

Why does positive attitude have such a big impact on performance? Shawn Archor, author of The Happiness Advantage, wrote in his book:

“Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organise new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on.”

Positive attitude doesn’t mean the leader is blind to problems or suffering. It simply calls for the approach to solving problems and finishing tasks to be a positive rather than a negative one. Instead of thinking about the downside of the job ahead, the leader wants to focus on the good aspects.

A focused approach

Leadership deals with the implementation of a specific vision. This means a great leader is able to stay focused and ensure the team works efficiently towards achieving the objectives. A leader is the person who will guide the way and if the leader is unaware of where he or she is going, the team will quickly find someone else to follow.

A focused approach doesn’t just mean staying in touch with the here and now. Although it’s important the leader is always on top of what is going on, it’s essential to look ahead as well. In order to maintain focus, the leader must have a plan of action, which has details for overcoming different obstacles the world could throw in the way. A focused approach is essentially about having a solid leadership strategy and framework to fall back on.

Maintaining focus can be difficult in today’s crowded world. It’s important to prepare yourself for the tasks ahead and improve your reaction to life’s little events by obtaining more knowledge. The more you know about leadership, your industry, the human mind and so on, the easier it can be to react and prepare. Furthermore, you also need to ensure the vision is clearly identified.

It’s hard to stay focused on the path, if you aren’t quite sure where you are walking. In a more practical level, you should also watch the below video by It gives great pointers in how to be more productive on everything you do.

A decisive mind

Leaders need to make decisions. If you aren’t able to decide between Plan A and Plan B within a set timeframe, you are most likely doing something wrong: either you don’t have the knowledge to be a leader or you aren’t decisive enough to make a stand. No one has said leadership is easy.

Decision-making matters because leaders don’t often have the luxury of time. The business world moves fast and the leader needs to be always ready to make a judgment call on where to go next. The challenge is naturally steeper as a leader can’t just make a decision, but they have to ensure the decision is the correct one and benefits the team.

How to be better at making decisions? Lisa Nalbone has suggested a great model for decision-making:


The above guide can help you at work and in personal life. The key is to understand the ‘why’, explore the different opportunities instead of just sticking to your first idea, and to stick to your decision once you’ve made it. Finally, no matter how big or small the decision is, try evaluating it afterwards to understand how effective your decision was in achieving what you wanted it to achieve.

An empowering character

A leader is often only as good as the people around him or her. Although leadership can mean the structure of power is more hierarchical than equal, it doesn’t imply the leader is the only person to get things done. In fact, leadership is often more about developing other people’s skills rather than performing tasks as the leader.

When leaders focus on empowering and nurturing talent around them, they ensure the team achieves its goals faster. Reaching and fulfilling the leader’s vision becomes easier when the team’s skillset is enhanced. But empowerment is important beyond the practical aspect of teaching people new skills.

Recognizing other people’s talent can have a big motivational aspect. If you help a person become better, you provide them with new opportunities and new challenges – all of which can make the person feel happier and more motivated every morning. You are faced with an eager team; one that wants to spend time experimenting and studying, instead of doing the same things over and over again.

A communicative ability

The ability to communicate is probably the characteristic most people associate with good leadership. A leader needs to be able to communicate the vision clearly in order to achieve following and motivating others behind his or her cause. Yet, communication and all that it entails is often rather misunderstood as a concept. It isn’t simply about the ability to explain things to other people, but also about the ability to read other people and to listen to what people around you are saying.

A good communication is built around the following building blocks:

  • The ability to listen – This includes understanding non-verbal cues, but also being able to use reflection and clarification to your advantage.
  • The ability to sympathize and to empathize – You need to have the ability to understand other people’s emotions. For a leader, it’s crucial to be aware of what is going on in the lives of the subordinates in order to better reflect their emotions.
  • The ability to encourage – During any type of communication part of the focus should be on encouragement. This could mean praising the person’s efforts, making them feel welcome, or letting them feel like their opinions are valued. Encouragement is essentially the ability to interact; to ensure the discussion isn’t just one-sided.

Furthermore, when you are communicating with someone, you need to first clarify your message to yourself. Always ensure you are aware of the core message you want the person to get from your discussion because this alone can add a lot of clarity to the discussion.

An empathetic nature

The old-fashioned view of a leader often painted a rather dark image of the boss. Leaders were almost considered as dictators, who don’t care about the employee, but pursue the objectives no matter the consequences.

But the world has changed and people now realize how important ‘softer’ values are in terms of successful leadership. Empathy and the ability to consider other people, whilst pursuing the vision, are part of the leader’s agenda.

Leigh Buchanan’s article in Inc. highlights the importance of empathy, not just in terms of innovation, but also for business sustainability. Empathy and a real concern for other people is not only a strong motivational tool for getting things done, but it also helps leaders to better implement their vision. The ability to understand what other people are going through helps in decision-making.


A number of leadership traits almost come directly from within. These are the qualities that might be harder to train, but which make leading other people smoother.


A good leader has to show commitment. Fulfilling your vision won’t happen overnight and you need to be able to convince everyone else that you won’t disappear when things get tough. If you make a promise, you need to keep it. You can’t just preach about achieving A, B and C, but you need to show that you are actually going to do it.

Commitment matters for two reasons. First, when you show commitment you help build trust. The team and anyone involved with the project will be able to trust your word. Trust will keep work morale up and help you achieve objectives faster since people don’t need to second-guess what your objectives are.

But furthermore, the second aspect of commitment is about setting an example. As mentioned throughout the article, leadership is about setting an example and if you show commitment to your word, your subordinates will be inspired to stick to their promises. Using your own example of hard work, you will ensure the people around you feel motivated to do the same thing.


Passion should be at the heart of everything you do. It doesn’t matter whether you are a leader of a multibillion company or a lumberjack, without passion, you won’t achieve success. You can understand its importance when you view it as the fuel for your truck. If you don’t have enough fuel, i.e. passion, you will eventually run out of steam and your journey will be cut short. But if you make sure your tank is full, you can continue driving.

Furthermore, passion helps in leadership because it can motivate other people. Consider a person is doing a job simply for the sake of doing it. They might show up every morning and finish the tasks as told, but there is no burn within them. On the other hand, you have someone who is always excited to start a project, who talks about the tasks and comes up with new ideas and suggestions.

Which one would you feel more comfortable following? Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, once said,

When you believe in something the force of your convictions will spark other people’s interest and motivate them to help you achieve your goals.

Passion can, of course, seem depleted at times. Just like adding fuel to your car, you need to occasionally rekindle your passion. The Muse suggested these six ways of finding your passion in a blog post:

  • Adopt the right approach to seeking passion – Don’t assume finding your passion will be impossible, but be inspired by the opportunities you have in front of you.
  • Identify your ‘peak moments’ – Examine your experiences and find the moments that stand out.
  • Find the connection – Your passions might sometimes seem different from each other, but try to identify the connections linking your interests together.
  • Differentiate a hobby from a career – In the world of business, you naturally need to find a profitable angle for your passion. While you shouldn’t ever do something for the sake of making money, you do want to ensure your passion can sustain the kind of lifestyle you want.
  • Don’t be afraid of the resistance – Your inner voice will try to come up with all sorts of reasons you shouldn’t follow your heart. Resist the fear.
  • Explore your comfort zone – Passion requires you to take the plunge and to step outside of the comfort zone.


In the previous section, we discussed about the importance of empathy. Another similar trait, which leaders need to have, is honesty. A strong leader is able to treat people with respect and care, while staying honest. Leadership is not about wiping things under the carpet. If there is a problem, a great leader is able to identify it, talk about it and find solutions to it. A leader doesn’t add a sugar coating on things, but they use their communication skills to ensure people are aware of the issues.

Honesty also means openness about the processes and the implementation of the vision. The leader should always be as informative and open about the tasks ahead as possible with the subordinates. The more information the subordinates have, the better they are able to conduct their work as well. If the vision and the objectives are shrouded in mystery, it can be difficult for the subordinates to fully commit to the job.


A great leader is confident. He or she doesn’t second-guess whether they are up to the job; but the person knows his or her strengths and how to use them in order to implement the vision. If they are hesitant or seem to have a lack of trust in their own abilities, subordinates wouldn’t feel comfortable following their lead.

When things are going wrong, people often start looking around them for comfort and support. A leader is the person who stands out in these times because they show composure that relaxes other people. If a ship is sinking, you look at the captain and you want him to give you orders calmly on what to do, not run around yelling, “we’ll all die”.

The key to understand and excel in confidence is the realization that it doesn’t mean self-satisfaction or arrogance. The ability to know you are able to achieve your goals doesn’t mean the same as thinking you are the only one who can finish the job.

How to achieve confidence? First, you need to learn to know yourself and your abilities. It’s crucial to self-reflect and get on top of your strengths and weaknesses as a person, a leader and an employee. You can use the below tips to identify your best attributes and abilities:

Source: Dr Paul TP Wong’s blog

You also need to continue learning more about the world around you. The ability to learn new things, as well as the courage to try things you’ve never done before are important for improving and growing your confidence.


Trust requires accountability. You can’t start trusting a leader or feel comfortable with the process, if you don’t think everyone is playing by the same rules. When it comes to creating a team, most guides point accountability as the cornerstone of getting things to work. In terms of leadership, accountability is often not just in terms of the leader’s own mistakes, but a good leader takes responsibility for everyone’s performance.

It can seem brutal, but a great leader understands that ultimately the buck stops with them. While individuals always need to take responsibility within a team, it is the leader’s role to ensure things won’t go wrong. One of the major reasons behind the lack of trust in today’s CEOs often comes precisely from the fact that leader’s aren’t showing enough accountability.

During the financial crash, the public witnessed a number of leaders either avoiding the consequences or walking away with a hefty severance package. If you want to build trust within your team and the wider community as a leader, you need to show accountability.

Watch the below TedX Youth talk on the power of responsibility:


If you put all of the above together, an image of an inspirational leader will emerge. After all, one of the key qualities that separate the leader from the rest is the ability to inspire. A leader is a person who can outline his or her vision and immediately capture the imagination of other people. You won’t follow a person that doesn’t spark an emotion in you, who doesn’t make you feel better, and who doesn’t convince you of the direction they are heading. You follow a person who will make you feel excited about the journey ahead.

An inspirational leader is not just able to talk the talk; they can also support the people around them to achieve the vision. Therefore, inspirational isn’t a quality simply about the ability to ‘sweet talk’. True inspiration is about showing others how something can be achieved and providing people with the tools to change things into something different. As a leader, you need to be able to inspire people to dream, but to also act according to those dreams.

Career coach Kathy Caprino wrote in Forbes about the three core elements defining inspirational people. According to Caprino, inspirational people have:

  • Created their own path instead of following what other people are doing. They are also immersed in their passion, body and soul.
  • Turned attention to other people, instead of centring themselves at the core of everything they do. In essence, inspiration people want to help and empower others because it provides them with fulfillment and joy.
  • Become great at telling stories by using new perspectives and adding their own experiences to everything they do.

The above traits and characteristics are at the heart of great leaders. The qualities are often innate, but it doesn’t mean they cannot or shouldn’t be trained and developed further. A good leader recognizes the importance of these traits and knows that anyone is able to use them in their quest to becoming a great leader.

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