Great Leaders: 17 Qualities That Set Them Apart

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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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