If you asked most people what separates great leaders from the average person, they’d probably tell you that it’s due to their intelligence, confidence, charisma, strength, or something similar. But over the many years, I’ve spent as a coach helping new and mid-level managers become great leaders, I’ve realized that the truth about good leadership comes down to skills and behaviors that are less showy and obvious.
When you let go of the image of what makes you look like a great leader, you can start to focus on the traits that will allow you to build the right environment and make people love working for you. The list below isn’t exhaustive, and no two leaders are the same, but these are the traits I’ve found to make the biggest difference. A few of them might surprise you.
Most people have a set of values that they try to live by, but how many of us can really say that we’ll stick to them no matter what, even when the going gets tough or it doesn’t work in our favor? That requires serious courage, and the average person would prefer to go along with the majority and stay quiet so they don’t cause a scene.
Contrary to popular opinion, being a leader isn’t about shouting the loudest and bossing everyone around. It’s about having good judgment (see number four) and being courageous enough to speak up and stand up in ways that influence others, even when it feels very uncomfortable to do so.
Interestingly, even if you’re in a group of people who disagree with you initially, we tend to respect those who have the courage to speak their minds no matter what. As long as the delivery is right, people will instinctively recognize courage, integrity, and honesty as signs of leadership.
Now we move on to the more surprising stuff. There’s a common myth that we live in a dog-eat-dog world and only the most ruthless “dogs” will rise to the top. While it’s true that life is often competitive and can require the ability to be ruthless when necessary, acting in that way all the time will quickly create a toxic environment and turn people against you.
If you want people to truly respect and like you as a leader, compassion goes a long way. Always look for ways to put yourself in the shoes of others when conflict or confusion arises, and go out of your way to help those around you make progress or overcome challenges.
True leaders care about people and take a human-centered approach naturally. In fact, it’s often their compassion and their desire to serve and bring out the best in others that gives them the motivation to step up to leadership in the first place.
If you ask any successful person what made them successful, chances are that they’ll tell you some variant of focus. Leaders and winners don’t drift through life saying yes to everything that comes their way and doing whatever they feel like on a given day — they have razor-sharp focus, and they’re not afraid to say “no” to everything that falls outside of it.
Focus comes down to choosing a goal or vision that you want to work toward and being prepared to do whatever it takes to get there. That almost always means delegating some tasks to others so you can apply yourself to the tasks you’re best at and have your team behind you.
This might sound simple enough, but it’s tough to decline requests, figure out who should do what, and direct other people — the disciplined focus is the only thing that will get you there.
#4 Broad Wisdom
I’ve already placed courage as one of my top leadership traits, but speaking your truth and sharing your ideas is only useful if you have ideas worth sharing. That’s where possessing broad wisdom comes into play.
What exactly do I mean by that, you might ask? Essentially, it comes down to having a knowledge base that goes beyond your own industry and company. It might not be immediately obvious what you can gain from learning about businesses in very different sectors, but so many things are universal — you’ll find links between just about everything.
From successes and failures of the past to future trends, you should aim to build as broad a knowledge base as possible to build your creativity. You can do this through all forms of media — from YouTube videos to podcasts to newspaper articles — but the best method (in my view) is reading classic books, including biographies, historical books, ancient philosophical texts, and more.
As they say, not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.
Preparation might not be the most glamorous trait around: planning for every possible eventuality can be tedious, and not everyone is willing to do it. We’d rather convince ourselves that our genius and intuition will see us through everything. But at the end of the day, things go wrong all the time, and you should do everything you can to avoid being caught by surprise the sh#*!t hits the fan.
If you want to be the person who wards off a bad situation and takes control when things go wrong, you need to have thought things through beforehand. Otherwise, you’ll be taking the backseat to someone who’s put in the work or you’ll likely make rash decisions and react to your emotions.
What will you do if somebody quits your team? If an upcoming product launch goes wrong? If you lose internet connection just before a big presentation?
Anyone can play the role of the leader when the going is easy, but a real leader will maintain their control when times get tough.
#6 Emotional Responsibility
This last trait often gets overlooked, but it’s possibly the one I’m most passionate about emotional responsibility. In other words, you should learn to manage your emotions and hold yourself responsible for them instead of blaming them on external factors.
If you get angry because someone in your team sends an important email to the wrong person, that’s not on them — your anger is on you. No matter how bad a mistake is, you can’t change anything once it’s already happened, so emotional outbursts are counterproductive. Learn to focus on your circle of influence — your thoughts and actions — and stop getting triggered by external events.
When you direct the blame elsewhere, you put yourself into victim mode. Leaders aren’t victims. This doesn’t mean that you’ll become a doormat and people will take advantage of your emotional control; rather, it allows them to interact with you as an adult instead of treading on eggshells. You’ll be guaranteed to receive more respect, not less.
The great thing about emotional responsibility is that it won’t just make you a better leader — it will also improve your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you in your personal life.
Now it’s your turn: Unleash your inner leader today
It’s one thing to understand the traits outlined above on an intellectual level and another to genuinely be able to internalize and embody them. Evaluating your skills and behavior objectively is difficult — the mind does a great job at deceiving itself to protect the ego, and it’s almost impossible for us to see ourselves the way others see us.
To cross this bridge, a coach can be an invaluable tool. An experienced third party will tell you exactly where your blindspots are and what you need to improve — I’ve done it for countless clients before, and the results are striking.
If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, why not book a call with me today?
Now, I’d love to know in the comments below: which of these 6 traits is your favorite one?