Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Great Leaders: 17 Qualities That Set Them Apart

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Too often, great leaders are those once in a lifetime happenings. Leaders will emerge anywhere there is a group – workplaces, organisations, teams, friendship and social circles, communities, families – anywhere. You won’t find many of the qualities that make a great leader on a resume or a job description – which is a shame – because they’re the ones that make the difference. Here are some qualities that make unforgettable and influential leaders.

  1. They genuinely care about the success of the others.

    Great leaders will do whatever they can to keep the path to success wide open for everyone – and not just by giving well suited bottoms a comfy place to land when the midnight oil is burning on – night after night after night. In workplaces they’ll challenge and develop employees and offer opportunities for intellectual and professional growth.

  2. They say ‘Yes, and …’ instead of ‘Yes, but …’.

    Before moving on to change, advise or tweak, they acknowledge the work behind the idea and the contribution it makes to the ones that come after it.

  3. They are open to new ideas – and not just their own.

    Being able to say ‘no’ is important but if it’s used too quickly or too often it will stifle creativity. The best ideas come from the nuttiest ones. Great leaders support ideas and concepts and allow them to be expanded to their full potential. That doesn’t mean they jump on every pony that comes along – some things were never meant to fly – but they acknowledge the thought, effort and value behind an idea, even if the value is what track not to travel down.

  4. They are emotionally open – in a professional way.

    They get excited and are quick to let on when they’re disappointed in themselves. They’ll celebrate everyone’s wins and will empathise when things don’t go to plan. At times they’ll become cranky or frustrated. And then they’ll apologise. Professionalism with humanity. A heroic combo.

  5. They appreciate others – and others feel appreciated.

    Great leaders are very quick to give positive feedback. Because of the way they lead, employees feel like they work with not for a boss, so will have more of an investment in the outcome. People work harder when they know what they is being noticed.

  6. They don’t steal credit.

    They give credit openly, publicly and wholeheartedly. We learnt not to steal as toddlers because it was the quickest way to be tumbled. Nothing’s changed. People aren’t stupid and those who steal credit for someone else’s work will find it’s the quickest way to have a target plastered on their back. 

  7. They are humble.

    When things are going bad, they’ll blame themselves. When things are going well, they’ll applaud the efforts of those around them. Leaders who have solid self-insight, are more self-critical, humble and whose opinion of their leadership quality are more inline – and not grander – than the opinions of those they are with, are more engaging and engender more commitment, according to new research. The overwhelming bulk of leaders in highly successful companies, including Fortune 500 companies, have this one particular trait. 

  8. They are never abusive.

    Leaders who are abusive throw an entire team into conflict. Productivity is reduced as the focus is shifted from coping with the conflict and away from performance. 

  9. Intelligence with integrity.

    Intelligence is important but it isn’t enough on its own. There are plenty of intelligent leaders who have made bad decisions. A lack of integrity will blind wisdom and will too often lead to decisions that fail to consider all possible implications. When a decision is made by a leader of high integrity, even if the decision is an unpopular one, it will be respected all the same and will generally engender the least fallout. Generally.

  10. They are likeable.

    People won’t follow people they don’t like. Leaders with good character will inspire others towards optimal performance. Leaders can be as educated and impressive as they think you are but if people don’t like them, their influence will wither. People will do as much as they need to, and nothing more.

  11. The instill trust.

    Leaders who lead through fear will get the mimimum. Leaders who connect with those around them and genuinely care will inspire peak performance. People will want to do their best and work their hardest for somebody they like. For someone they fear, the goal becomes staying out of trouble.

  12. They aren’t afraid to say the tough stuff.

    Great leaders know that constructive criticism is never ‘constructive’. It’s just criticism. (How did those two words ever find each other anyway?). Putting the word ‘constructive’ in front of criticism doesn’t make it so. That doesn’t mean they only ever talk glossy. Not at all. If something needs addressing, they’ll do it but they’ll do it with grace. They’ll sandwich it between strengths, reassure, and offer constructive advice.

  13. They inspire, educate, motivate. 

    Inspiration. Education. Motivation. A great leader will always provide at least two of these – not necessarily the same two – to everyone around them.

  14. They get their hands dirty.

    They’ve been there. Done that. Haven’t stopped yet. They never feel so self-important as to be above the grunt work. As a result, people will put in the work that’s necessary. They lead a culture where entitlement isn’t tolerated and hard work is valued and appreciated.

  15. They won’t tolerate ‘white-anting’.

    Organisations and groups are brought to their knees by rumour-mongering and smack talk that happens behind backs. Great leaders create a culture that squeezes this out. Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t always be people with forks in their tongues. What it means is that they run against the tide of the organisation.

  16. They see opportunity in the uncertainty and the problems.

    Crisis brings opportunity if there is a leader ready to learn, change and flex around it. Major changes don’t generally happen when things are going well.

  17. They keep improving.

    Even at the pinnacle of their career they will continue to grow. They will seek out new directions, read and listen. The will continue to grow and expand themselves, both personally and professionally.

Aside form being sharp, quick and intelligent, great leaders are emotionally intelligent and have a profound capacity to inspire and connect with those around them. Great leaders aren’t easily defined, but when you’re in the company of one, you know it.

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