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Leadership Qualities vs. Leadership Behaviors

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In this new CONNECT2Lead series, Words to Lead by, our objective is to dig down to the nitty gritty matter of leadership. We’re defining words to spotlight nuance, and we’re sharing quotes from leadership researchers to expose various facets of what it means to lead. We’re talking about words, phrases and concepts that aren’t routinely discussed because it’s assumed that the meaning is universally understood (spoiler alert: it’s not).

Graphic Showing SharingTake the word “leadership,” for example. Ask 10 people, and you’ll get 10 different definitions. Some will include leadership traits or attributes, and others will include actions. Some will focus on people with titular authority while others think first of influencers with no formal control. Over the next 13 weeks, we’ll look at all these discrepancies and more.

In today’s post, we’ll specifically examine the differences between leadership qualities and leadership behaviors. Let’s start by defining those words.  

Qualities: essential or distinctive characteristics; distinguishing nature; traits, character, or features. From the Old French word quālis meaning “equivalent to a sort.”

Behaviors: manner of behaving or acting; observable activities, action or reaction under given circumstances. From the Latin word habēre meaning “to have” and the Middle English behavoure meaning a type of conduct.   

Think of it this way. Qualities are how a person is while behaviors are what a person does.

In leadership, both qualities and behaviors matter. They are intertwined in ways we seldom pause to consider. Without consideration, we miss opportunities to exhibit the behaviors and qualities we intend to. This signals something other than the leader communicates, and the discrepancy damages the leader’s credibility.

Credible, effective leaders are consistent. They align their words and actions. They choose words and actions that reflect their values and drive toward desired outcomes. They reconcile who they are with what they say and do. That’s heady stuff, and it doesn’t come automatically. Precisely why it’s important to spend time working it all out if you want to be a strong leader.


Leadership Qualities  

Research abounds. Common sense and personal experience edifies what research tells us. There are certain characteristics that draw us to other people and certain personality traits that magnetically attract some people to others.

That’s why we associate certain characteristics with leadership. It’s a widely held belief, for example, that leaders are naturally charismatic. The way they speak, their ability to command attention, their presence and gravitas… there’s just something about these people that makes them seem worthy of our esteem and attention.

It’s also why we’re drawn to Robert K. Greenleaf’s paradoxical idea of servant leadership. It’s why we believe people who generously, altruistically give of themselves are “better” leaders. From this work and prevalent belief, we associate characteristics related to service with leadership. Chief among the characteristics of servant leadership are:

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Self-awareness
  • Stewardship
  • Community-building


These characteristics, and others like them, are often thought to be inborn or naturally occurring. Some people are, simply, more empathetic or charismatic than others. When we think, narrowly, that qualities are what qualifies someone to lead, we exclude others (perhaps ourselves) from leadership.

Let’s consider one more example. Dominance and command are another set of qualities often associated with leadership. Sometimes we defer to the strongest, most passionate voice or the person who takes charge. The person who exudes confidence and displays determination and fortitude can compel others to follow them in some situations.   

But are these qualities enough to make someone an effective leader?

What if you don’t have any of these qualities? Does that mean you are incapable of leading?

Research proves that qualities are not the end all and be all of leadership. They might be nice to have, but what you do with your own, unique mix of qualities is more important than the qualities alone.


Leadership Behaviors   

Meet Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner,  seminal researchers and authors in the domain of leadership development. Their 30+ years of work is highly regarded. It includes research with more than five million people worldwide, and it’s all focused on the behaviors of effective leaders.

Kouzes and Posner have concluded that “leadership is not about personality; it’s about behavior – an observable set of skills and abilities.” They observed and collected stories from thousands of leaders and found that “despite differences in culture, gender, age, and other variables,” effective leaders exhibit similar patterns of behavior. There are five core practices common to all leaders when they are at their “personal best.” These are known as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.   

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® are:

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Challenge the Process
  • Enable Others to Act
  • Encourage the Heart

This is an evidence-based framework for leadership. Each of the Five Practices is further defined by two descriptive commitment statements and six specific behaviors. Understanding the model and the specific behaviors enables any individual to make behavioral shifts that will make them more effective as a leader.

The Leadership Challenge book (now in its sixth edition) and companion workshop prepare leaders at every level to lead more effectively. The 360-degree instrument known as the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) enables individuals and organizations to measure the frequency of their leadership behaviors and act on their discoveries. To learn more about the 30 behaviors that come with The Five Practices, contact us to discuss a coaching engagement, assessment, and/or workshop.

When individuals and organizations focus on these 30 behaviors and The Five Practices, they experience profound leadership transformation.

The good news about behaviors is that they are available to anyone. It’s a simple choice to choose one behavior over another. The behaviors revealed by the Kouzes/Posner research are all accessible to anyone who chooses them. They do not require innate qualities or advanced education. They are simple and specific. Change comes by knowing what they are and committing to more frequently choosing these behaviors. Practice, of course, builds the habits and improves the quality of these behaviors. But merely making the decision to behave in these ways improves leadership effectiveness.

That may sound too good to be true. But it’s not. The research is sound, the stories of real people who have adopted this model are powerful, and there’s absolutely no downside to choosing a set of simple behaviors.

Behaviors, then, are the key to leadership effectiveness. But what about all those qualities we associate with leadership? Where do they fit in if it’s mainly our behaviors that position us to lead effectively?


How Qualities Drive Our Behaviors  

There is a correlation between qualities and behaviors. An absence of a quality does not, however, rule out your ability to choose a behavior. Similarly, no quality automatically produces a behavior. Behaviors come from deliberate choices, with or without associated qualities.  

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® are described like this. As you read each description, consider what underlying qualities might naturally cause someone to behave in this way. 

Model The Way

Leaders establish principles concerning the way people (constituents, peers, colleagues, and customers alike) should be treated and the way goals should be pursued. They create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. Because the prospect of complex change can overwhelm people and stifle action, they set interim goals so that people can achieve small wins as they work toward larger objectives. They unravel bureaucracy when it impedes action; they put up signposts when people are unsure of where to go or how to get there; and they create opportunities for victory.

Integrity is one quality suggested by this description. One definition of integrity is “the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished; sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition.” Integrated comes from the same root word, as does integer which means “a complete entity.”

Leaders integrate their values, beliefs, words, and actions. They are whole. That makes them consistent, predictable, and reliable. The quality of being “a complete entity” who is “undiminished” makes it easier for leaders to choose Model The Way behaviors.   

Inspire a Shared Vision

Leaders passionately believe that they can make a difference. They envision the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what the organization can become. Through their magnetism and quiet persuasion, leaders enlist others in their dreams. They breathe life into their visions and get people to see exciting possibilities for the future.

Being idealistic means to cherish the pursuit of high or noble principles, purposes, or goals. Leaders who are idealistic may be more inclined to exhibit Inspire a Shared Vision behaviors.

Challenge The Process

Leaders search for opportunities to change the status quo. They look for innovative ways to improve the organization. In doing so, they experiment and take risks. And because leaders know that risk taking involves mistakes and failures, they accept the inevitable disappointments as learning opportunities.

Being courageous can certainly help make it easier to innovate, take risks, face potential failure, and embrace learning opportunities.

Enable Others to Act

Leaders foster collaboration and build spirited teams. They actively involve others. Leaders understand that mutual respect is what sustains extraordinary efforts; they strive to create an atmosphere of trust and human dignity. They strengthen others, making each person feel capable and powerful.

It may be difficult to exhibit Enable Others to Act behaviors unless you are able to trust others. The quality of being trusting makes some leaders more effective than others IF they use that quality to more frequently demonstrate these behaviors.

Encourage The Heart

Accomplishing extraordinary things in organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize contributions that individuals make. In every winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts, so leaders celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel like heroes.

 Being generous makes it easier to share the spotlight and recognize others’ contributions. Ungrudging, grateful leaders have been celebrated in the school of servant leadership. But it’s not these qualities alone that make a leader effective. It’s the Encourage The Heart behaviors that can stem from these qualities.

These qualities (and others you associated with each of the Five Practices) may make a leader more naturally inclined to exhibit certain behaviors. But the inverse is also true.

Deliberate practice of the behaviors associated with a Practice can result in the formation of certain qualities.

For me, personally, years of deliberate focus on the behaviors associated with Enable Others to Act has made me more trusting of colleagues and team members. When I first became a manager, I didn’t trust anyone. When I think back to even earlier opportunities to lead, most of my failures in getting people onboard stem from my own lack of trust and belief that if I wanted it done right, I’d have to do it myself. While the quality of being trusting did not come naturally to me then, it’s something that manifests naturally now. The behaviors came first, the quality came later with practice and once I proved to myself that this was a better way of doing business. 

“Once your mindset changes, everything on the outside will change along with it.” - Steve Maraboli

Leadership qualities are an asset. Use them to access the leadership behaviors that come more naturally to you. This is “low-hanging fruit.”

But don’t stop there. Some leadership behaviors will be less natural, probably because your established qualities don’t promote these behaviors for you. Make a decision to practice, hone, and more frequently demonstrate those behaviors, regardless of whatever qualities you do or do not currently have.

When you enhance your qualities with the evidence-behaviors that make leaders more effective, you will become an unstoppable force as leader.

If you’d like to learn more about The Leadership Challenge Workshop or The Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), let’s talk. Deb is a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge, one of only 58 in the world. She’s facilitated hundreds of workshops for senior executive teams and for emerging leaders alike, ushering in transformational change that strengthens individuals and organizations.   Click the logo below to learn more.

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