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Mapping the Attributes All Great Leaders Need

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In recent CONNECT2Lead posts, in a series called Words to Lead by, we’ve looked at behaviors, qualities, and characteristics of leaders. In a future post, we’ll also look at leadership traits. In this post we’ll focusing on the attributes of great leaders.

Just in case the words qualities, characteristics, attributes and traits all seem synonymous, let’s pause to break them down. Qualities is an umbrella term, used to group characteristics, attributes and traits and distinguish them from behaviors.

One of the first posts in this series offered a broad overview and included these definitions:  

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. 

That brings us to this next step, getting more granular in differentiating characteristics, traits, and attributes.

Characteristics: Pertaining to or indicating the character of an individual. Character is defined as a moral of ethical quality of a person. The word origin behind “character” meant “an engraved mark.” Characteristics, then, can be seen as deep-seated qualities that come from a person’s own value system. These were covered in this post and a bit more in this one that added some less-obvious characteristics of effective leaders. 

Attributes: Belonging to a person; something used as a symbol of a particular person or associated with an individual. The original Latin meant something associated with a person. Unlike characteristics (which stem from values or morals), attributes can be physical or temporary or conditional. Attributes are chosen.

Traits: Something distinguishing, especially of a personal nature. Some linguists believe this word comes form Middle French and originally meant “something drawn” or a “mark of peculiarity.” Others track this word back to Old French with an origin that meant “a pulling.” Either way , traits set us apart from others. But they are not necessarily inborn or linked to values. Traits can be chosen and developed.

The words traits and attributes are often used interchangeably. Defining them to this nth degree may seem like splitting hairs. Here’s why it matters: to be effective as a leader, you will have to make choices. You’ll also have to know yourself and align your behavioral choices and outward displays with your genuine values and priorities.

Working out who you are, what you stand for, and how you want to be perceived is important work. Unfortunately, there are some prevalent myths and misperceptions about leadership that keep people from thinking about themselves as leaders. 

Myths and Misperceptions about What It Takes to be a Leader   

There are five dangerous myths and misperceptions about what it takes to be a leader. They interfere with doing the work to understand one’s self and they prevent people from unleashing their own leadership potential.

Myth #1 – Leaders are the people at the top of the org chart

Don’t confuse leaders with senior managers. People in the C-Suite have titles and positioning that gives them a certain type of power. But those titles and positions do not make them leaders. You’ll find leaders at every level, in every age group, and in every social or work group. Leadership has nothing at all to do with position.

Myth #2 – Leadership requires charisma and charm

Leadership is often misunderstood as being a certain type of personality. But effective leaders have a wide variety of personalities. Not all leaders are charismatic, charming, outgoing, or gifted speakers. The movie portrayals of great leaders include moments that suggest a certain type of Svengali power or the ability to mesmerize and captivate others with magnetism and finesse. But there’s absolutely no evidence to back this misperception.

Myth #3 – It’s lonely at the top

It’s only lonely at the top if you’re doing it wrong! The misperception that leaders live in ivory towers or are isolated from others is unfortunate. Good leaders mingle frequently with people at all levels and never elevate themselves above others. They are interested in the experiences and ideas others bring. They inspire others by staying closely connected with them and understanding what they want to achieve. 

Myth #4 – Leaders need authority to effectively lead

Command-and-control is the purview of management, not leadership. Leaders rely on influence, not authority. In fact, if someone needs authority to compel action, it’s not leadership at all. Leaders stir others by tapping into intrinsic motivations. Leaders co-create shared vision with followers so that everyone wants to work toward the same aspiration and is willing to invest time and effort in doing so.  

Myth #5 – Leaders are born, not made

There’s no such thing as a natural-born leader. Even people who seem to have certain characteristics, attributes or traits aren’t automatically imbued with leadership capabilities. Leading effectively requires choices about how to behave. Anyone -- no matter who they are or what their role is or what qualities they have – can be a leader.

If you’ve ever subscribed to these myths about leadership, the results is that you’ve probably exempted yourself from leadership. You thought you weren’t or couldn’t be a leader. That’s not true.  

These myths and misperceptions are caused by a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a leader. Being a leader simply means that you have followers. And, at some time, you’ve had followers. You’ve had people who looked to you for direction, people who waited to see what you would say or do, people who paid attention to you before determining the path they would take.

In fact, everyone has the ability to lead and everyone has been a leader. If you’ve never intentionally stepped into your potential as a leader, you may inadvertently be leading people to a place you never intended to take them.

Parents, teachers, coaches, co-workers, siblings, friends, and others lead without even realizing it. If you don’t know where you aspire to be, you’re aimlessly leading in circles or stumbling to some place you don’t really want to take others.

By contrast, if you know where you want to take others (and where they want to go with you), then you can more deliberately and effectively get there. Once you’ve defined the destination, you will do well to also define yourself as a leader. What do you stand for? What can you be counted on to do and how?

Here’s where attributes come back into play. What qualities do you want others to associate with you? Beyond your characteristics (stemming from your values), what qualities will help you succeed with a particular group of people, in a particular environment, at a particular time, and for a particular purpose?

For some, being witty and jovial is an attribute that is essential. For others, being serious and detail-oriented is essential. This depends on the setting and people and work to be done.  The same person can be either – witty and jovial in some situations but serious and detail-oriented in others. This isn’t about being inauthentic or chameleon-like. It’s about adapting your own attributes to fit (or selecting a different place where your attributes are more likely to be a good fit).

The Attributes All Great Leaders Need Aren't Mysterious, Elusive, or Reserved for a Chosen Few

There are, of course, some attributes that will serve you well in any setting. Leaders are more likely to be effective if they exhibit:  

  • Patience
  • Accountability
  • Good Judgment
  • Self-Control
  • Finding/Having/Using Your Voice

Note, however, that these generalized attributes are not fixed and appropriate for every situation.

Patience with people development is usually a good attribute. But, over-extended, patience becomes a lack or urgency or a complacency that interferes with innovation and stretching to try new things. 

Accountability means taking responsibility for outcomes. It doesn’t serve a leader well, though, when a strong sense of accountability prevents the leader from trusting others with the work.

Similarly, having a voice and using it assertively should never over-shadow others. The best leaders encourage all voices and invite diverse points of view.  

These attributes, along with the others that you can identify as useful in your setting, are not mysterious or elusive. They’re common sense, practical, and accessible. They’re expressed in outward behaviors that others can see and come to rely on.

These attributes aren’t extraordinarily difficult to acquire either. Sure, some people may naturally be more patient than others. But becoming more patient is possible for anyone who focuses on it.

Maybe You Already Have More Leadership Attributes than You Realize  

Because these attributes are obvious and easy, they may not get the appreciation and esteem they deserve. You may already be exhibiting these attributes without realizing they pertain to your leadership.

Here’s a good starting point for thinking of yourself as a leader: Determine what difference you want to make. What difference do you want to make in the workplace, in your industry or sphere of influence, or in the world? Once you know that, you’ll know what attributes and behaviors you’ll need to exhibit more frequently.

"Every time you speak, you are auditioning for leadership." - James Humes

When you know what difference you want to make, you’ll speak about the things that matter most in regard to that difference. You’ll make decisions with this difference in mind. You’ll know who is most likely to share your vision and how to enlist those people in bringing that difference to life.  

You’ll also know what attributes you already have that serve you well (and which ones may not be serving you well). You’ll know what to work on in your own leadership development. You’ll be well-positioned to map out how you want to be perceived and what you need to display so that your actions and choices are aligned.

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