Five Most Important Leadership Traits

Some sit and pontificate about whether leaders are made or born. The true leader ignores such arguments and instead concentrates on developing the leadership qualities necessary for success. In this article, we are going to discuss five leadership traits or leadership qualities that people look for in a leader. If you are able to increase your skill in displaying these five quality characteristics, you will make it easier for people to want to follow you. The less time you have to spend on getting others to follow you, the more time you have to spend refining exactly where you want to go and how to get there.

The five leadership traits/leadership qualities are:

  1. Honest
  2. Forward-Looking
  3. Competent
  4. Inspiring
  5. Intelligent

These five qualities come from Kouzes and Posner’s research into leadership that was done for the book The Leadership Challenge.

Your skill at exhibiting these five leadership qualities is strongly correlated with people’s desire to follow your lead. Exhibiting these traits will inspire confidence in your leadership. Not exhibiting these traits or exhibiting the opposite of these traits will decrease your leadership influence with those around you.

It is important to exhibit, model and display these traits. Simply possessing each trait is not enough; you have to display it in a way that people notice. People want to see that you actively demonstrate these leadership qualities and will not just assume that you have them. It isn’t enough to just be neutral. For example, just because you are not dishonest will not cause people to recognize that you are honest. Just avoiding displays of incompetence won’t inspire the same confidence as truly displaying competence.

The focus of each of these five traits needs to be on what people see you do–not just the things they don’t see you do. Being honest isn’t a matter of not lying–it is taking the extra effort to display honesty.

Honesty as a Leadership Quality

People want to follow an honest leader. Years ago, many employees started out by assuming that their leadership was honest simply because the authority of their position. With modern scandals, this is no longer true.

When you start a leadership position, you need to assume that people will think you are a little dishonest. In order to be seen as an honest individual, you will have to go out of your way to display honesty. People will not assume you are honest simply because you have never been caught lying.

One of the most frequent places where leaders miss an opportunity to display honesty is in handling mistakes. Much of a leader’s job is to try new things and refine the ideas that don’t work. However, many leaders want to avoid failure to the extent that they don’t admit when something did not work.

There was a medium size organization that was attempting to move to a less centralized structure. Instead of one location serving an entire city, they wanted to put smaller offices throughout the entire metro area. At the same time, they were planning an expansion for headquarters to accommodate more customers at the main site. The smaller remote offices was heralded as a way to reach more customers at a lower cost and cover more demographic areas.

After spending a considerable amount of money on a satellite location, it became clear that the cost structure would not support a separate smaller office. As the construction completed on the expanded headquarters building, the smaller office was closed. This was good decision making. The smaller offices seemed like a good idea, but when the advantages didn’t materialize (due to poor management or incorrect assumptions) it made sense to abandon the model. This was a chance for the leadership to display honesty with the employees, be candid about why things didn’t work out as expected, learn from the mistakes an move on.

Unfortunately in this situation the leadership told employees that they had planned on closing the satellite location all along and it was just a temporary measure until construction was completed on the larger headquarters building. While this wasn’t necessarily true, it didn’t quite cross over into the area of lying. Within a few months the situation was mostly forgotten and everyone moved on. Few of the employees felt that leadership was being dishonest. However, they had passed up a marvelous opportunity to display the trait of honesty in admitting a mistake.

Opportunities to display honesty on a large scale may not happen every day. As a leader, showing people that you are honest even when it means admitting to a mistake, displays a key trait that people are looking for in their leaders. By demonstrating honesty with yourself, with your organization and with outside organizations, you will increase your leadership influence. People will trust someone who actively displays honesty–not just as an honest individual, but as someone who is worth following.

Forward-Looking as a Leadership Trait

The whole point of leadership is figuring out where to go from where you are now. While you may know where you want to go, people won’t see that unless you actively communicate it with them. Remember, these traits aren’t just things you need to have, they are things you need to actively display to those around you.

When people do not consider their leader forward-looking, that leader is usually suffering from one of two possible problems:

  1. The leader doesn’t have a forward-looking vision.
  2. The leader is unwilling or scared to share the vision with others.

When a leader doesn’t have a vision for the future, it usually because they are spending so much time on today, that they haven’t really thought about tomorrow. On a very simplistic level this can be solved simply by setting aside some time for planning, strategizing and thinking about the future.

Many times when a leader has no time to think and plan for the future, it is because they are doing a poor job of leading in the present. They have created an organization and systems that rely too much on the leader for input at every stage.

Some leaders have a clear vision, but don’t wish to share it with others. Most of the time they are concerned that they will lose credibility if they share a vision of the future that doesn’t come about. This is a legitimate concern. However, people need to know that a leader has a strong vision for the future and a strong plan for going forward. Leaders run into trouble sharing their vision of the future when they start making promises to individuals. This goes back to the trait of honesty. If a leader tells someone that “next year I’m going to make you manager of your own division”, that may be a promise they can’t keep. The leader is probably basing this promotion on the organization meeting financial goals, but the individual will only hear the personal promise.

An organization I was working with was floundering. It seemed like everyone had a different idea about what they were trying to achieve. Each department head was headed in a different direction and there was very little synergy as small fiefdoms and internal politics took their toll.

Eventually a consulting firm was called in to help fix the problem. They analyzed the situation, talked to customers, talked to employees and set up a meeting with the CEO. They were going to ask him about his vision for the future. The employees were excited that finally there would be a report stating the direction for the organization.

After the meeting, the consultants came out shaking their heads. The employees asked how the important question had gone to which the consultants replied, “we asked him, but you aren’t going to like the answer”. The CEO had told the consultant that, while he had a vision and plan for the future, he wasn’t going to share it with anyone because he didn’t want there to be any disappointment if the goals were not reached.

Leaders can communicate their goals and vision for the future without making promises that they may not be able to keep. If a leader needs to make a promise to an individual, it should be tied to certain measurable objectives being met. The CEO in the example didn’t realize how much damage he was doing by not demonstrating the trait of being forward-looking by communicating his vision with the organization.

The CEO was forward-looking. He had a plan and a vision and he spent a lot of time thinking about where the organization was headed. However, his fear of communicating these things to the rest of the organization hampered his leadership potential.

Competency as a Leadership Quality

People want to follow someone who is competent. This doesn’t mean a leader needs to be the foremost expert on every area of the entire organization, but they need to be able to demonstrate competency.

For a leader to demonstrate that they are competent, it isn’t enough to just avoid displaying incompetency. Some people will assume you are competent because of your leadership position, but most will have to see demonstrations before deciding that you are competent.

When people under your leadership look at some action you have taken and think, “that just goes to show why he is the one in charge”, you are demonstrating competency. If these moments are infrequent, it is likely that some demonstrations of competency will help boost your leadership influence.

Like the other traits, it isn’t enough for a leader to be competent. They must demonstrate competency in a way that people notice. This can be a delicate balance. There is a danger of drawing too much attention to yourself in a way that makes the leader seem arrogant. Another potential danger is that of minimizing others contributions and appearing to take credit for the work of others.

As a leader, one of the safest ways to “toot you own horn without blowing it”, is to celebrate and bring attention to team achievements. In this way you indirectly point out your competency as a leader. For example: “Last year I set a goal of reaching $12 million in sales and, thanks to everyone’s hard word, as of today, we have reached $13.5 million.”

Inspiration as a Leadership Trait

People want to be inspired. In fact, there is a whole class of people who will follow an inspiring leader–even when the leader has no other qualities. If you have developed the other traits in this article, being inspiring is usually just a matter of communicating clearly and with passion. Being inspiring means telling people how your organization is going to change the world.

A great example of inspiration is when Steve Jobs stole the CEO from Pepsi by asking him, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?” Being inspiring means showing people the big picture and helping them see beyond a narrow focus and understand how their part fits into the big picture.

One technique to develop your ability to inspire is telling stories. Stories can be examples from your customers, fictitious examples from your customers, or even historical fables and myths. Stories can help you vividly illustrate what you are trying to communicate. Stories that communicate on an emotional level help communicate deeper than words and leave an imprint much stronger than anything you can achieve through a simple stating of the facts.

Learning to be inspiring is not easy–particularly for individuals lacking in charisma. It can be learned. Take note of people who inspire you and analyze the way they communicate. Look for ways to passionately express your vision. While there will always be room for improvement, a small investment in effort and awareness will give you a significant improvement in this leadership trait.

Intelligence as a Leadership Trait

Intelligence is something that can be difficult to develop. The road toward becoming more intelligent is difficult, long and can’t be completed without investing considerable time. Developing intelligence is a lifestyle choice. Your college graduation was the beginning of your education, not the end. In fact, much of what is taught in college functions merely as a foundational language for lifelong educational experiences.

To develop intelligence you need to commit to continual learning–both formally and informally. With modern advances in distance, education it is easy to take a class or two each year from well respected professors in the evening at your computer.

Informally, you can develop a great deal of intelligence in any field simply by investing a reasonable amount of time to reading on a daily basis. The fact is that most people won’t make a regular investment in their education. Spending 30 minutes of focused reading every day will give you 182 hours of study time each year.

For the most part, people will notice if you are intelligent by observing your behavior and attitude. Trying to display your intelligence is likely to be counterproductive. One of the greatest signs of someone who is truly intelligent is humility. The greater your education, the greater your understanding of how little we really understand.

You can demonstrate your intelligence by gently leading people toward understanding–even when you know the answer. Your focus needs to be on helping others learn–not demonstrating how smart you are. Arrogance will put you in a position where people are secretly hopeful that you’ll make a mistake and appear foolish.

As unintuitive as it may seem, one of the best ways to exhibit intelligence is by asking questions. Learning from the people you lead by asking intelligent thoughtful questions will do more to enhance your intelligence credibility than just about anything. Of course this means you need to be capable of asking intelligent questions.

Everyone considers themselves intelligent. If you ask them to explain parts of their area of expertise and spend the time to really understand (as demonstrated by asking questions), their opinion of your intelligence will go up. After all, you now know more about what makes them so intelligent, so you must be smart as well. Your ability to demonstrate respect for the intellect of others will probably do more to influence the perception of your intellect than your actual intelligence.

Summary of the Five Leadership Qualities

By consciously making an effort to exhibit these traits, people will be more likely to follow you. These are the most important traits that people look for in their leaders. By exhibiting them on a regular basis, you will be able to grow your influence to its potential as a leader.

Comments

  1. Sovann Nou says

    I totally like all thoughts in this article regarding key traits of leaders. I wish all leaders should have these 5 values to lead their team effectively for productivity and create friendly respectful environment!
    Leaders are some time off the trail, they show their power to get respect from subordinates but not happening it just worse and worse.
    - honest
    - forward looking
    - competent
    - inspiring
    - intellegent

    Great article I will share with all my leaders and colleagues because everyday people play the role of leaders too buy poeple don’t know, leader is so much related to attitue and behavior.
    Thanks

  2. Peter Mayondi says

    This article was brilliant. It has inspired me to become a leader and not just assume i have qualities of a leader. To me now leaders must strive to improve in the way they lead others.

  3. says

    Really A very good and thought provoking article. I have taken a good lesson by reading it. Now the question is why has the issue of Honesty and Integrity increasingly become a scarce resource in today’s world? What is /are the implication/s this may indicate?.

  4. Johnny A. Shelton says

    Leadership is an art. Work as a group, never use your rank to get a job done. Be another one of the guys. They know who to come to if help is needed. Watch them and let them do the job, do not micro manage them. Tell them what is to be done, give them guidance when is needed, and they will surprise you every time. I teach for a military orgenization, I break them down in groups of 5,7,9 the leader of the group always pops up and others learn from him. Then the others give classes from what they have learned. This replaces hours and hours of class room sleeping time. Keep them active and you will do a much better job of developing common sense skills and leadership.

  5. Bridget Symonds says

    I am not an ambitious person and have no desire to be a great leader in a business, social or political setting. This article seems to be geared toward this goal. I do however want to be a strong and effective teacher who is respected and trusted by her students and peers. I can understand how fostering these traits can be of value to me. To be honest will gender trust. In teaching, being honest, tempered with tact and patience will allow me to guide my students to successful learning. And if I am honest with students about my own mistakes, they will feel more free about accepting their own. You must accept your errors if you plan to learn from them. To teach is to look forward by its very nature. If I can impress on my students a long term goal of learning, I will acheive forward thinking leadership. I can show my competence through my students’ success. i can inspire my students by thinking outside the box as well as in. Respect the individual to inspire the individual. I am only as smart as my actions display. I will always strive to learn from my students as I teach my students. To always learn is to be intelligent.

  6. says

    I absolutely agree with your five qualities. Early in your article, you state, “Your skill at exhibiting these five leadership qualities is strongly correlated with people’s desire to follow your lead”: however, you don’t tell people how to measure that “followship”. I have leaders that believe they are exhibiting these qualities (or behaviors), but they have no followers. They don’t seem to be able to recognize that no one wants to follow them. A follow on article telling them how to measure their effectiveness as a leader would be great.

  7. Ayo Asaju says

    You have opened my eyes to know where to be modest and where modesty may become counterproductive. I have been guilty of being phlegmatic when it comes to displaying competence in many situations. I have also been guilty of showing off intelligence without knowing it. Because I like to share ideas and can not let people carry on or feed me with what knowledge I consider as is wrong, I get caught, asking too many questions which lead to so many arguments which I more often than not ‘win’. But I have discovered that winning arguments all the time often leaves people hurt and resentful because it amounts to displaying intelligence. I did not see it as showing off intelligence, which I only hear people tell others as a result of the way they say I marshal my point. The same people who say I am intelligent are the same people who express frustration when I ask questions or disagree with their points of view. What it means for me and people like me is if we ever hope to be good leaders we must drop this habits.

  8. Sauaina L Nautu Jr. says

    This article was not only very informative but educating. I was recently accept in a Employee Development Program in my place of employment and currently in the 4th month of the one year program. Reading, I could not help but reflect on the current leadership within the management and how it does not reflect any of the characteristics outlined in the article. Fear, intimidation and punishment is the best way I can describe the style of leadership that is currently in management. Saidly, some of these gentlemen have gone through the same develolpment program that I am currently in. There is a small group of us that are not afraid of those in management and we all have had our share of run ins, and they know that we are not intimidated by their positions.
    Though I may not be able to change the perspective of these individuals, I can only change myself. I can only improve and continously learn those traits in leadership that will help me effectively lead myself to be a better person and then become an asset within my organization. I love what I do and the organization that employs me, it not only affords upward mobility locally but on the global scale. The one paragragh that really hit home and I plan to incorporate it on a daily basis, “One of the greatest signs of someone who is truly intelligent is humility. The greater your education, the greater your understanding of how little we really understand.”
    Thank again for this oppurtunity to share my thoughts and I will be visiting this website on a regular basis for learning oppurtunities

    Mahalo,

    Sauaina L Nautu Jr.

  9. caroline raskiewicz says

    I agress with the attributes of leadership. However, leaders must recognize individuals who help them develop and attain their visionary goals. Many times it is the support staff that needs to be credited for helping leaders to stay focused.

  10. says

    Great tips Mark. I especially like the idea of inspiring employees from within. I’ve found it helpful as well to help leaders build skills like empathy, communication, problem solving and team building in order to deal with any challenge that comes their way in the workplace.

  11. Bill says

    I’ve been struggling to get a small business off the ground in a meaningful way and this post is quite helpful as I was looking for inspiration. Running a small business as a lone entrepreneur can be frustrating and quite hard at times. Hopefully me and other can take the information here and turn it into a successful leadership style for not only our companies if we have one but our lives as well.

  12. Lisa Dempsey says

    I personally struggle with the forward-thinking. I get so caught up in the day to day problem patients, staffing issues and management obligations that the only forward thinking I know is that our patient volume needs to increase. I have always been the manager that takes direction from the director and runs with it. I would like to make some critical decisions on my own. This is something that I really want to work on. When it comes to honesty, and admitting mistakes-it took me many years to feel comfortable stating “I made a mistake.”. I have no problems with that at all.

  13. says

    A quality I think a great leader must have is humility. You may know it all and if you play your hand others my find you pompous (arrogant) and choose to unfollow you.

    Next, I believe the inspiration is a good quality to possess as a leader. By being inspirational you can speak to your followers and move mountains. And by being inspirational you should pay attention to over selling a point to the point you lose credibility if you can not support what you so passionately sold through inspiration to your followers.

    Nice post. Thank I learned something new.

  14. katy sturgis says

    Interesting, I never really though about the qualities that make a good leader. As I read this article it makes me think of the CEO of the hospital that I work at. The hospital is currently under negotiations to be bought and the CEO has handled it with tremendous skill and poise. She has been open,honest and explained her vision for the hospital. She exhibits most of the qualities.

  15. Bobbie Rigatuso says

    Thank you for your 5 leadership traits. I am a retired teacher and have been tutoring since retirement. I am always searching for information that I can pass on to others , but I also need to read more and more about leadership in improving my own true leadership. I am always trying to pass on new information to my adult kids and my grandchildren as well as my students . I surely want to shine when I’m around my colleagues. Teaching is the greatest profession around…it seems that a true teacher can always be inspired by others. I am an elementary teacher and believe that young children need to be inspired at an early age.

  16. Jimmy Dichirico says

    I support these leadership traits and practice this in my daily work and when with friends and associates; I wish our local government officials and mayors would do the same; so there can be transparency and action that really improves the quality of life for all. Spread these words. Ask candidates running for office to explain their leadership traits they will follow; most cannot. They don’t have core beliefs. They just read others without practice. So much fake leadership out there. It makes me sick, many of us as students were taught code of standards and then we go out to the real world, get jobs and meet these so called leaders who have no code of ethics; nor real leadership traits to inspire us. That is so sad, it just proves how people breed corruption. Greed over being genuine…too much personal wealth building leads to sick power and no community wealth building at all. Where is the leadership on this?

  17. Roy L. Rucker says

    Very excellent article that has captured the leading traits of an effective leader to display. It is so true, that merely possessing these traits is not enough; they need to be displayed from a natural sense and not forced.

    Thanks for the learning experience on the 5 most desirable leadership traits.

  18. says

    I have recently taken a managerial position in the hospital where I work. I have worked for the organization for 18 years, but never as a manager. I found this article helpful to me personally, because one of the things I have struggled with is how to be a good leader. The new position is very challenging so I am always trying to find books and programs that that will increase my skills. I found this article helpful and will try to actively apply these skills to my practice. I agree that in order to be a successful leader you must exhibit the five traits. I

  19. Mohammad Aryubi says

    I must say I greatly benefited from you analysis of the leadership qualities. Anyone who aspires to lead a group of people, or a struggling nation, must possess or acquires such vital traits. Unfortunately, in the Third World, ws have some so-called leaders, who not only lack such qualities, but are also corrupt and boneheaded. Mr.Karzai of Afghanistan is a vivid example of such notorious and discredited leaders.

  20. David Hernandez II says

    I have seen leaders develop over time during my 20 years of service in The United States Army through experience, making several mistakes, humility, honesty, respect for others and a willingness to listen to those who have develop into successful leaders both at the junior and senior level. The one sure thing I experienced and learned as a junior and senior leader is that leading by example and setting the example will enhance ones leadership abilities, trust and confidence with the ones they have been put in charge of.

  21. says

    The story was about what a leader does and what characteristics/traits the person had. A non-leader is usually not focused and not paying attention to what they need to do in the future. But a leader does. A leader is honest, forward-looking, competent, inspiring, and intelligent. So that means that people can trust that person enough to be a leader. And also they have to think about whats going on and things they need to fix.

  22. Ayobami Bamidele says

    I found your piece very inspiring. I realized i missed a lot of opportunities to exhibit leadership skills in the past. I have helped people, colleagues, my departmental team in the office out of difficult situation times without number. I actually derived fun doing those things. Instead of getting promoted, i never knew others were taking the credits. As for me, my temper, arrogance might have worked against me. I am in my early forties now, when i was much younger, my company competitors wanted me to start their offices as manager direct, i ignored them thinking i am a okay in my office. Now, i have to start something on my own as i have learnt in hard way. I studied engineering and have enough experience as far as shop floor operation is concerned. But, now i must learn leadership skills fast as i plan to study management. I gained a lot from your tips, many thanks.

  23. Kathleen Molo says

    I would like to see leadership conferences, Dale Carnegie and others, around our nation to prepare the younger generations for leadership roles. Costs should be kept affordable. My generation is becoming older and we must pass the tprch of liberty and leadership to this younger generation. The cost of freedom is not free!We must save our Democracy and that needs education.

  24. says

    The five leadership qualities are being honest,foward looking,competent, inspiring, and intelligent. I think that I can be a great leader because, I am an honest person. I will admit to my mistakes. People trust people that actively display honesty. I think that I am worth following. I think that i exhibit the five leadership qualities. I am intelligent in the respect that I learn from people that lead,and bing intelligent, you learn from asking questions. A person can develop a great deal of intelligence in any field by simply investing a reasonable amount of time reading on a daily basis. The one thing that I have experienced and learned through leadership is to set good examples, that will enhance one’s trust and confidence with the one’s that you have been put in charge of.

  25. says

    Mark… a well written piece on leadership traits. These are external traits you have listed so I will add the obvious that it takes an inner drive, a passion, to make these work. You also addressed the ability to have a strategic vision and the smarts to carry it out. Although I don’t think intelligence is a key factor in being a leader, it certainly makes it easier. I would say people skills, the ability to connect to people, is more important than intelligence. Good luck and keep writing.

  26. Frank Arthur says

    Throughout my working career as a soldier in the US Army, DoD Civilian as well as work done in other spheres, I have had the opportunity of working with some of the very best leaders and managers who excel in their various fields of endeavor meaning they are competent in their jobs, communicate regularly, candid with their constituents, honest with employees, open minded, go to bat for their subordinates, and best of all will not ask of their employees anything they are not capable of doing themselves. I have also seen pretentious leaders and managers who lack the essential qualities of a leader and rule their constituents strictly by the neo-classical techniques and bottom line requirements and the results they achieve are self evident. I personally believe that leadership traits can be acquired through learning, practice, repetition and most important of all discipline.

  27. Kevin Beinke says

    I think trust is an important part of leadership but also submit it is a part of honesty. One thing I was taught and also used to teach was the TRUST ACCOUNT. If you make a promise of a reward to motivate your staff, firstly ensure you have the authority to make that promise. If it comes from your own pocket so much the better. If your staff accomplish that goal, you MUST provide the promises reward. Another example is the negotiations in workplace flexibility. A staff member needs time off for personal or family reasons or some other extraneous request and you negotiate a particular work performance requirement. If your employee carries it out, NEVER renege on that commitment.

  28. chaz mejiaskivich says

    I recently retired from a career in law enforcement and had the dishonor to work for an anministrative team who would be hard pressed to manage a lemonade stand. These individuals focused on “self” rather than the needs of the department. Due to poor management skills, there was no synergy, low morale, and a department divided against itself. This particular department was/is plagued with nepitism, favoritism, cronyism, and yes, racism. Unfortunately these individuals cast each other in their administrative positions, and wouldn’t have the brain power to read, muchless master your leadership traits. Your leadership traits are inspiring and I hope to use them in my future endeavors.

  29. Edna M Green says

    Nice read, I have been put in roles of leaderships,, called a born leader. , put in position of leader because of my order of birth, the oldest of 6. I have always wanted to be a person of integrity and found this speaks volume of a leader. The leadership skill honesty really was inspiring..I always agree 100 percent is the greatest reward you can give is inspiring and empowering others.

    Thank you .

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