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Not-so-Obvious (but Essential!) Leadership Characteristics

Banner Saying Words to Lead by with C2L Logo

When you think about leaders that you willingly choose to follow, certain obvious characteristics come to mind. We all want to follow leaders who are:

  • Competent
  • Honest
  • Inspiring
  • Visionary
  • Supportive
  • Intelligent
  • Strong communicators
  • Confident
  • Committed
  • Courageous

In last week’s post, a part of this CONNECT2Lead Series with Words to Lead by, we reviewed research about those obvious and most-desired characteristics of leaders. In this post, we’ll look at five additional characteristics of leaders. These are less obvious but extremely important for leaders who want to be effective in taking people to new places.

If Everyone's a Leader, Why Do Some Leaders Make a Bigger Impact than Others?   

Before we add not-so-obvious (but important!) leadership characteristics to our list of Words to Lead by, let’s step back to clarify who we’re talking about when we discuss leaders.

We’re not talking exclusively about senior management.

01 - ValuesThe folks in the C-Suite or at the top of your team have managerial authority and titles that outrank yours. Those titles and positions do not automatically make them leaders.

Leadership is not the same as management. Check out these 25 differences between managing and leading.

Someone in a management role MIGHT also be a leader. But leadership can be exhibited at every level, by people who have no title of authority and no ability to compel others’ actions. You can observe children on a playground and see examples of leadership. You can look at any team of peers and see glimmers of leadership from most members of the team.

No matter what your role or position on the org chart, you already have opportunities to be a leader.

Leadership is simply “the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations” (Kouzes/Posner). A leader, then, is someone who is able to mobilize others even when things aren’t easy but there’s a shared goal worth striving toward.

Said another way, you know someone is a leader because they have followers.

You’ve probably seen people in management roles who don’t have followers. They might have people who comply with their orders. But, given a choice, they would not willingly choose to follow these managers or to struggle with them.

Leadership is not reserved for a chosen few at the top. Leadership is within your purview and everyone else’s, too. In fact, at times, everyone has already been a leader. People have watched, taken an interest, emulated, and followed others, at least for a time.

What is it, then, that causes some people to lead more effectively? To have more followers? To make more impact when leading?

Let’s say, for the sake of this discussion, that two people both displayed the ten characteristics listed at the beginning of this article. They both exhibited the characteristics of admired leaders and the other obvious traits we look for in those we choose to follow.

If characteristics alone were the determinant factor in who we choose to follow, we’d expect that both these people would be equally effective as leaders.

But you probably know someone who embodies all ten of those characteristics yet doesn’t seem to be making an impact or garnering followers the way someone else does. So what’s the difference?

From the research of Kouzes/Posner, we have an evidence-based framework for leadership known as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leaders®.  This research is unique in that it looks at what effective leaders DO, not at what characteristics or qualities they display. With over five million participants in the 30+ years of global research, Kouzes/Posner’s model identified 30 specific behaviors that effective leaders demonstrate more frequently than others.

Behaviors or actions are what people outwardly see and can respond to. They might not be able to tell whether or not you are intelligent, committed, or courageous. But they can tell if you exhibit behaviors like “actively listens to diverse points of view.”

These 30 behaviors are not complicated. They don’t require advanced degrees or decades of experience to acquire. They’re simple. Each one requires only a choice to behave in that manner.

Overlooked Leadership Characteristics that Make a Big Impact on Followers  

Behaviors, then, are what can help you show up as a leader and make a greater impact as a leader (at any level). Characteristics matter, but people will ultimately evaluate your actions.

That’s why there are some not-so-obvious or overlooked characteristics that are germane to our deep-dive look at leadership. These characteristics will make it easier to consistently and readily choose the 30 behaviors that come from the Kouzes/Posner framework known as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® (found in The Leadership Challenge® and measured in The Leadership Practices Inventory®.)

While these five characteristics may not come to mind instantly when your think about what you’d like to see in leaders, you can probably recognize them in the leaders you’ve admired or followed in the past. Though less obvious, these characteristics make a lasting impression on followers.   


Leaders are learners. They are restless in their pursuit of a vision, always asking “what’s new?” and “what’s next?” to stay ahead of unexpected roadblocks. Effective leaders want to hear others’ ideas and input, even when it contradicts their own thinking.

Remaining open and receptive to new inputs and being willing to adjust along the way doesn’t come easily for most of us. Behaviors like actively listening to diverse points of view, seeking out challenges to test your own abilities, and supporting others’ decisions become easier once a leader acknowledges that others have a lot to contribute. 

Humility is the anecdote to prideful thoughts that are self-limiting. Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less and of others more. A humble leader finds answers faster by not pretending to have all the answers.


Leaders aren’t measured by their ability to build followership. They’re measured by their ability to build leadership that extends to others. Successful leaders ennoble others. They make others feel worthy and important.

This isn’t about insincere flattery or throwaway compliments. To truly ennoble someone, leaders must trust others and dignify their ideas and contributions. They must respect their decisions and give them plenty of latitude to try new things, learn, and grow.

Enablement is a popular buzz word that refers to giving people resources and skills so they can succeed. Leaders know that ennoblement is equally important.

With this characteristic, leaders are more likely to exhibit behaviors like celebrating shared successes, recognizing others’ achievements, and giving people freedom in how they choose to do their work.


Leaders know when and how to be stoic.

In its strictest use, being stoic means to be devoid of emotion or passion. That’s not what we’re talking about because effective leaders certainly do have passion and emotions, especially about the vision they’re leading people toward.

At the same time, effective leaders know that there will be circumstances and realities to accept and deal with along the way. They aren’t blinded by their passion. They aren’t so single-minded in their pursuit that they become unrealistic or out of touch. They stoically persevere.

Leaders don’t give up. They don’t accept detours as failures. They keep their disappointment in check and look for alternate routes. While they may be resigned to the delay, they are committed to the ultimate vision. That’s where optimism comes in.


Leaders maintain focus on their vision. They believe in it and are confident that they can move closer to it. They are not deterred by setbacks.

This isn’t to say that leaders are out of touch with reality. This optimism is balanced by stoicism. It sounds like “We aren’t able to take that path, so now we’ll find another way to achieve our vision.”

Leaders help others maintain optimism, too. They aren’t deceiving others or sheltering them from the truth. They are, instead, modeling hope even in the face of adversity. 

With a combination of stoicism and optimism, leaders are more likely to choose behaviors related to experimenting and taking risks, searching for innovative ways to improve, and focusing on the higher meaning and purpose of work.

Emotional Intelligence

Leaders continually work to understand themselves and others. They know that leadership requires relationships. Leaders have strong interpersonal skills, strong self-awareness about how their actions impact others, and the ability to manage their own emotional displays.

Leaders know that credibility as a leader hinges on showing an ability to first lead yourself. With strong emotional intelligence, leaders more often follow through on their promises and commitments. They seek others’ feedback and respond appropriately. They treat others with dignity and respect.

 The outward behaviors that are proven to make leaders more effective stem from what’s happening internally. Leaders who develop characteristics that are other-oriented will find it easier to choose behaviors that consider the needs of others. 

Followers First Is the Way to Lead

By considering the needs of others, leaders take the spotlight off themselves and put it on their followers. Characteristics that produce other-oriented behaviors change how a leader is perceived.   

"I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?" - Mahatma Gandhi

Here’s why this matters so much.

Leaders are visionary. They have a vision for the future. But that vision is meaningless and impotent unless others can see themselves in that vision and are inspired by it.

Having the vision isn’t enough. Leaders must be other-oriented to understand why this vision matters to others, how to enlist others in the vision, and how to help others see what’s in for them if they achieve this vision. Leaders speak in “us” and “we” terms because that’s how they genuinely view the future.

Leaders put their followers first. That’s not the same as being a servant leader (which we’ll cover more in a future post). It’s not about being subservient to people, displaying false humility, or waiting around for a majority vote to decide on team actions. It’s certainly not about manipulating people by making false promises or painting “blue sky” pictures to deceive others and gain their support. 

Putting followers first is about genuinely caring about the same things that followers care about. It’s about having a SHARED vision, one that responds to followers hopes, dreams, and goals. Leaders represent their followers and step out in front because they see a pathway toward that shared vision.

Once out in front, leaders don’t turn their backs on followers. They remain mindful that others are watching so they model what they want to see from others. They make room for others and praise them for their efforts and accomplishments. They stay connected and aware of what’s happening with followers, knowing that SHARED vision is a profound bond.

Leadership characteristics yield leadership behaviors. Strong leaders build themselves so that they can build for the future that their followers want to bring to life.

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