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The Obvious Characteristics of a Good Leader

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As one of the world’s 56 Certified Masters of The Leadership Challenge®, I have the privilege to work with thousands of people in workshops about what it means to be a leader. In one workshop, we ask participants to identify the characteristics of admired leaders. These findings have been compiled by researchers and authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. Consistently, around the world and in all sectors, these four characteristics come out on top:

  • Competent
  • Honest
  • Inspiring
  • Visionary

These characteristics are named by people who are thinking of themselves in a follower role when asked this question. It’s a study that asks participants to discern which characteristics are most important to them when evaluating a leader.

Informally, as an executive coach and consultant, I ask people this question outside of workshops, too. I might ask, for example, “What do you like best about the leaders in this organization?” or “What do you want others to say about you as a leader?”

The responses are remarkably consistent. Whenever people talk about the characteristics of good leaders, these four words (and their synonyms) come up over and over again.

What Other Research Reveals about the Desired Characteristics of a Good Leader

The Center for Creative Leadership released new research in December 2019 that identified these 15 characteristics of a good leader:

  1. HonestyGraphic Showing Sculpting Human Form
  2. Ability to delegate
  3. Communication
  4. Sense of humor
  5. Confidence
  6. Commitment
  7. Positive attitude
  8. Creativity
  9. Ability to inspire
  10. Intuition
  11. Courage
  12. Caring
  13. Optimism
  14. Self-control
  15. Communication

This research was based on observations of leaders. There are some characteristics that are not as easy to observe and are, therefore, absent from this list.

For instance, other research says qualities like humility and curiosity and respect for others are essential for leaders. This research is based on surveys of people in business and other settings.

Leadership development researchers like Zenger/Folkman and Kouzes/Posner more often relies on follower input to compile lists with characteristics like the ones we opened with.

There doesn’t seem to be any research that disputes the findings that say we want leaders who are, first and foremost, competent, honest, inspiring, and visionary. Additional characteristics may also be important, but these are must haves and, as such, make a good starting point for leadership development.

Emerging Characteristics that We Prefer in People We Choose to Follow

Over time, there could be some subtle shifts in what we value in our leaders. For the past 30 years, the characteristics mentioned above (competent, honest, inspiring, visionary) have steadily held the top-ranked positions in research on the characteristics of admired leaders.

At the same time, there are some characteristics that are showing up more frequently than they used to. Once you’ve mastered those four characteristics, these would be good ones to work on next!

The characteristic that shows up near the top of the list with many of my non-profit clients is supportive.  This characteristic tends to show up more often with younger and emerging leaders, too.

Being supportive is linked to the servant leadership movement. It matches what we know from employee engagement and retention research about expectations of today’s workforce.

Humility is another characteristic that seems to be coming up more often. We want to follow people who are continually learning and growing, people who are willing to share credit and admit that they don’t have all the answers, and people who see value in what we can offer them, too.

The emerging characteristic that surprises me most is this one: intelligent. More often, this word is appearing near the top of the list. We want leaders who are quick to comprehend, can soundly reason and have good judgment, and are facile working through new and ambiguous information.

In a rapidly-changing world with mounting complexity, being supportive, humble, and intelligent may give you many advantages. I’m not yet convinced, though, that these characteristics can stand alone or replace the top four in getting others to follow you.

These characteristics won’t hurt, especially if they are in addition to (not instead of) the top four. But I’ve seen supportive, humble, intelligent people left behind when others choose to instead follow those who exhibit vision and are inspiring.

The One Characteristic that Differentiates a Good Colleague from a Good Leader

Let’s go back to the top four characteristics of admired leaders. There’s an interesting facet to these findings and what they reveal about the leaders we willingly and eagerly choose to follow.

To spotlight that facet, we first have to look at another body of work so we can interface the two. As a journalism student (many years ago!), I learned about source credibility. The term, source credibility,  refers to what’s needed for a receiver of information to accept that information from a given source.

There are three criteria we subconsciously evaluate to determine whether or not a source is credible. We assess a source in these three ways before determining whether or not to believe what that source says. We ask ourselves:

  • Is the source competent?
  • Is the source trustworthy?
  • Is the source dynamic?

Think of a courtroom drama, as portrayed in a movie. This illustrates the three criteria of source credibility.

  1. When an expert witness is called, the attorney first asks the expert to share their credentials. This is to demonstrate to the jury that this source is, indeed, competent.
  2. The expert is carefully coached to come across as an unbiased, just-the-facts, witness. This witness will use certain phrases to demonstrate trustworthiness, saying things like “Based on the review of 500 similar cases, this seems highly unlikely.”
  3. Attorneys try to select expert witnesses with likeable, engaging personalities. They want dynamism to shine through because they know that bored juries tune out and no longer see the witness as completely credible. If the expert gets a little too scientific or uses too much jargon, the attorney will inject some levity to add some dynamism into the exchange.

The opposing attorney, of course, works on cross-examination to diminish the credibility of the expert witness. Questions like “How much were you paid to come here today and offer this testimony?” are designed to make the witness seem less trustworthy. Questions like “So you aren’t actually practicing in this field any longer… you’re just a witness-for-hire, right?” are intended to make the witness seem less competent.

If you put these three criteria of source credibility side-by-side with the first three characteristics of an admired leader, you’ll notice a very close match.

Competent – Competent

Honest – Trustworthy

Inspiring – Dynamic 

Leaders, then, must first be credible!

But isn’t that we expect of everyone? Whether we follow someone or not, we do expect people to be credible… to honor their promises and deliver on their commitments.

That’s why the last characteristic of an admired leader matters so much. 

“Great people stand out from others by their visions and not much by their intelligence.” - Amit Ray

In addition to being credible, we expect the people we follow to have a vision.

Taken a step further, you could say it this way. Being visionary is what distinguishes leaders from other people who are credible.  

Being visionary means that you have a vision for the future. That’s more than a list of KPIs, goals, or strategic plans. Vision is an ideal, unique image of the future for the common good. It’s an image of the future we’d like to be a part of.

A vision does not need to be easy, practical, or immediately accessible. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said “I Have a Dream,” he described a future state that was not conceivable to many at that time. He knew, though, that every step toward that vision was an improvement.

Vision inspires people. It stirs them into action. It gives them hope and imbues their work with meaning and purpose.

A leader without vision has limited power and must rely, instead, on managerial authority or short-term extrinsic motivators. Neither is sustainable in the way that vision is.

As you work to develop your leadership characteristics, be sure you spend time on liberating your big-picture, long-term thinking and dreaming. Unleash the vision!