What are the qualities of a great leader? Well, it depends on who you ask.
Some employees might value a boss who makes them feel empowered, while a CEO might prefer a manager who’s always got their eye on the bottom line.
But true leadership—the kind that can inspire disruptive change and motivate teams to move mountains—is more than just a matter of opinion. All great leaders share certain defining qualities that help them see a future that’s different from the present, act on that vision, and inspire others to come along for the ride.
We set out to identify the defining qualities of a great leader based on research and real-world examples. Then, because a true leader is always improving, we worked to uncover the best methods to strengthen those same characteristics within yourself.
Harvard Business Review covers a study in which researchers identified a group of individuals who scored within the 99th percentile in studies of managerial competency. The researchers then called on colleagues, bosses, direct reports and peers of those individuals in an effort to identify the characteristics that make them great leaders.
After working through all the leaders in their pool, the team concluded that the number one quality shared among them was strategic vision: an ability to “vividly describe their vision of the future” and give their team members a big-picture road map of the path forward.
A business without a clearly defined vision will struggle to keep all its moving parts working together toward a shared goal. In the worst-case scenario, it’ll falter and fail. In the same way, a leader without vision is nothing more than a taskmaster handing out duties.
Vision ensures that everything that’s done is done with purpose: to move the organization closer to its goals. It also increases employee buy-in by giving their work meaning, a key ingredient for engaged, fulfilled workers.
Leadership experts Scott Keller and Colin Prince elaborate on this concept in their book Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage. They advise that companies and leaders who help employees grasp a sense of meaning in their work reap the benefits of happier employees and a more productive workplace.
How To Cultivate It
Vision is about more than just being a good planner. It’s about creating new ways of doing things and anticipating shifts in the market before they happen.
To cultivate vision, practice taking nothing for granted.
For example, let’s say your dominant market is 18- to 29-year-old men. Many leaders would get tunnel vision around serving this and only this demographic. A visionary leader, on the other hand, might envision a completely different positioning strategy in which the product becomes equally enticing to 35- to 55-year-old men.
To cultivate vision, don’t be surprised by the unexpected; learn to seek it out.
Great leaders set goals—huge ones. They don’t just aim to meet expectations, they set out to send those expectations crashing to the ground as they skyrocket past.
In the Harvard Business Review study, researchers found that great leaders shared a common knack for setting and surpassing stretch goals of the loftiest variety. It’s about more than just working harder, though; the game-changer lies in finding new ways of doing things to achieve their high goals.
How To Cultivate It
Not a naturally ambitious person? You’re not alone, nor are you necessarily lazy. According to scientists, innate levels of ambition vary widely depending on several factors: what part of the world you’re from, your parents, your economic status growing up, and multiple other things that are largely out of our control.
The good news is, though, most experts agree that ambition can be learned and cultivated. It starts with having something to get ambitious about—in other words, finding the thing that lights your fire. When a great leader latches onto something he or she is passionate about, setting and working toward high goals comes naturally.
If you have trouble getting motivated about your work on a regular basis, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to be a poor leader, but it might be evidence that the entrepreneurial path you’ve chosen to pursue isn’t the best fit for you.
A study out of the University of Texas at San Antonio took a close look at the modern workplace: one where innovation and creativity are key ingredients to success (think companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, et. al.). Researcher Dina Krasikova set out to figure out which leadership factors produced the most productive teams in such an environment.
Krasikova and her colleagues found the characteristic that emerged as the most dominant one in successful creative leaders was confidence. When a leader is confident, she explains, he or she is unafraid to put forth new ideas and challenge the team to do the same.
Which brings us to another important note: confidence is contagious. Confident leaders empower their subordinates to work collaboratively and brainstorm on ideas.
"When leaders feel confident that they can produce creative outcomes,” Krasikova writes, “their subordinates become more creative."
It works in reverse, as well. Leaders who lack confidence do things like place blame, play favorites and publicly shame employees for mistakes, which creates a hostile work environment.
How To Cultivate It
One reason confident leaders are confident in the first place is that they simply know their stuff. When you’ve put years into mastering your craft, it’s easy to execute with poise and courage. So, never stop learning.
Cultivate confidence by staying on the cutting edge of your profession. Read the latest headlines every morning. Attend conferences and seminars. Network with people who are smarter and more successful than you.
When all else fails? Faking it works, too. We’re not talking about pretending you know things you don’t, of course, but rather exuding confidence even when you’re feeling timid or unsure. Scientific studies have shown that people who exude confidence are perceived by outside parties as more competent—even if they’re neither of those things.
No great leader is an island unto himself. In fact, the best ones are surrounded by great people that they defer to and rely on often.
According to the leadership study cited in Harvard Business Review, great leaders “put faith in a culture that magnifies upward communication.” Or, in layman’s terms, they adopt an open-door policy.
We frequently hear about the entrepreneurial benefits that come from being extroverted—great connections, for example, or the willingness to commandeer the spotlight. But the quality of receptiveness is one that leaders on the introverted side tend to master, as Harvard Business School researcher Francesca Gino points out.
In an internal study of more than 10,000 manager observations at Google, employees noted that having a boss who is accessible and listens to their ideas were among the most important qualities in a good leader.
How To Cultivate It
When it comes down to it, leaders who aren’t receptive have a struggle surrounding control. Either they’re a micromanager who feels that their way is the only way and thus exerts a choke hold on their employees, or their schedule/workload is so out of control they don’t have the time or mental energy to hear employees out. Both of these create a lose-lose scenario for you and your subordinates.
Practice cultivating receptiveness by letting go of control—both of the need to do things perfectly and of your vice-grip on your day planner. Mistakes will happen, period. A great leader doesn’t dwell on mistakes but instead helps employees learn and grow from them.
Additionally, to be more receptive work on becoming a better listener by listening more than you speak. As a leader, this can seem like an almost impossible feat, but it’s a valuable one to make your employees feel heard.
Practice the habit of active listening, focusing completely on what the other person is saying rather than what you’re going to say next or, even worse, how badly you wish they’d leave your office so you can get some work done.
As we’ve discussed thus far, being bold, forward-thinking and goal-oriented is characteristic of many great leaders. But while these traits are commonalities many accomplished leaders share, they’re not necessarily predictors of success.
Experts say conscientiousness is different.
Conscientious people are well organized and responsible—planners at heart—and experts say this quality is the only major personality trait that consistently leads to success. It’s unique in that it cuts across job roles and industries and is likely to be a defining factor throughout a person’s entire life, from grade school to retirement.
In a study by the National Institute on Aging, researchers worked to determine how heavily certain personality traits influence career success. They surveyed more than 700 professionals, administering a comprehensive personality test on each of them and surveying other factors such as income and emotional wellbeing.
The researchers found that the trait of conscientiousness was associated with professionals who not only earned more, but were more satisfied with their profession.
Being conscientious is so important to be a great leader because it bleeds into across many different segments of your work and life. If you’re conscientious, you follow through on things you start. You follow up when promising opportunities cross your path. You’re generally less likely to drop the ball on things than your less conscientious peers.
How To Cultivate It
Harvard Medical School offers a few research-backed suggestions for becoming more conscientious and, in turn, a better leader.
First, focus on specifics in your work and life. Many leaders tend to take a big-picture approach, which is important, but it’s easy to lose sight of the small details that are equally relevant.
Tidy up your desk. Set a shortlist of goals for the day and try to see that they all get crossed off. Make it a priority to be on time. If you struggle with staying focused, use automated tools (Toggl productivity timer is a nice free one) to help you stay on task.
We tend to think of creativity as chaotic and free-flowing, while productivity, on the other hand, is structured and regimented. With the rise of technology, though, the lines between the two have become more blurred with each passing year.
Researchers from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and St. Cloud State University set out to understand the role of creativity in problem-solving leaders. They reasoned that as technology gets more advanced, it’s not the company with the best idea or the most startup capital that wins out, but rather the one that’s able to innovate most effectively.
As such, the ability to solve problems becomes more in demand and creative leaders are a critical advantage.
In a 2010 study of 1,500 CEOs, participants said creativity was the number one most desirable leadership quality. And yet, a study released shortly thereafter shows only one in four people believes they are living up to their full creative potential--what creativity thought leaders deem the 'creative gap.'
If we want to be the strongest leaders possible, creativity is a muscle most of us could benefit from flexing more often.
How To Cultivate It
Examine your processes. Why do you do things the way you do them? In many cases, it’s simply because that’s how you’ve always done them. Switch things up and cultivate creativity by encouraging alternatives, which will also lead to more innovative solutions.
When you find yourself at a fork in the road, refuse to accept that it’s either path A or path B. Encourage your team to come up with three to five (or more!) alternative solutions—the more creative, the better. It’s not always about finding a new way to do things; in some cases, what you’re already doing is best. It’s more about training your mind to think outside the box, even if it means challenging a long-held system or belief.
Additionally, you can cultivate creativity by facilitating the access to and sharing of knowledge. As they say, there are no new ideas, only new ways of combining them. By seeking out the best ideas from others, you’ll be more apt to make original, unique connections of your own.
One of the toughest parts of being a great leader is steering your team through tumultuous times. Bad times are inevitable, but they also separate the good leaders from the great.
Leadership development firm Zenger Folkman conducted a study of more than 500 leaders, focusing specifically on those who ranked within the top 10% and the bottom 10% on resilient behaviors. Not surprisingly, those who ranked among the most resilient were also seen as the most effective leaders by their peers and subordinates.
In a subsequent survey of more than 1,000 leaders, those who showed a strong preference toward resilient behaviors were more focused on action than analysis and were more likely to make decisions quickly, both valuable traits for an effective leader.
Some leaders are naturally more resilient than others, and our DNA is partially to thank. According to author and psychology professor Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness, about 50% of our propensity to bounce back positively in the face of adversity is due to genetics. 10% is due to outside circumstances (i.e. the behavior of the market), and a whopping 40% is determined by our own intention. That means we have a pretty incredible margin to improve our resilience.
How To Cultivate It
As Dr. Lyubomirsky points out, resilience is all about how we respond to the events around us. To cultivate it, practice being mindful of your response to actions that are beyond your control.
When something bad happens, do you retreat in fear or become paralyzed by uncertainty? Or do you take action, realizing that standing still is the worst decision you could make?
Realizing that you’re in control of your response during a tough situation is half the battle. Once you learn to be mindful of this, you can take steps to improve your response, like choosing action over inaction and decision over uncertainty.
One final characteristic shared by great leaders? They’re always working to improve. Read more on leadership and how to be a more courageous entrepreneur in the articles below.