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(some) traits of great leaders

(some) traits of great leaders


what do the people that get it ‘right’, really do?  What is it that elevates the good to the great, and sometimes beyond?  Having looked at the subject and those who do it, some thoughts follow…

Leaders come win all shapes and sizes; regardless of how much we analyse the factors that might contribute to success, there is usually something (or someone) that bucks the trend.  How often do we see lists of characteristics or habits, yet some of our greatest leaders demonstrate precious few of them.  This is good news, by the way, as it means that we all have it in us, or the ability to develop ‘it’, to be come a good or great leader.

I would concur with the popularly held view that the greatest and best leaders leave an organisation in better shape than they found it – clearly this depends upon how one might measure better, but go with me. Further, they leave that organisation in a position to thrive after they are gone. Those leaders who become great can simultaneously deal with the now, whilst focussing on the future – in short they execute the current plan whilst developing the future plan.   

1. They’re passionate.  They remain enthused and excited about what they are doing and what their team is trying to accomplish. Great leaders stay enthused about what they are doing for unusually long periods of time.  They don’t get bored, they find a spark of energy on the most difficult situations.  When a leader senses himself or herself losing excitement or engagement, it is time to step down from leadership or take time to rediscover oneself.  an excited and engaged leader is critical to success.

We should not confuse passion and excitement with a bombastic personality. A great leader can have a big personality, and most have great people skills, but that is only part of the picture. Great leaders are engaged with their teams. They are constantly talking to, communicating with, seeing and visiting their teams. They know what is going on with their teams, they know what is going on with their key customers and they know what is going on with the business.

2. They build teams and develop those who lead the level beneath them. The greatest accomplishment of a leader may be building the next level of leadership such that he or she is less needed. This is so important to the organisation and requires tremendous energy from current leadership, yet it is not always a top leader’s first goal.

Ironically a great team can go exponentially further and accomplish much more than a great leader.  When a high-performing team is built, the leader remains important. However, more and more, you can identify a great leader or manager by how special their team is. When a team is cohesive and performing well, it is a lot easier to be a great leader or manager.

As a key point to building great teams, great leaders emphasise great recruiting (and retention). A key point for recruiting and retention is developing a culture that attracts and retains great people and allows them to thrive and develop both personally and professionally.

3. They have challenging goals and develop clear plans. Great leaders set goals for their teams and organisations that are exciting, interesting and far bigger than themselves –  ‘This is what we are going to be,’ or, ‘This is what we are going to accomplish.’ There is nothing worse than a leader who transparently appears to get ahead for themselves or accomplish their own goals versus organisation or team goals.

The late Apple CEO and Cofounder Steve Jobs and former GE CEO Jack Welch are examples of great leaders who set big goals. Mr. Welch had the core goal to be No. 1 or 2 in any market or not be in the market at all.  An aim of being 1 or 2 in a market speaks volumes about Jack Welch – he was clearly sufficiently humble to realise that any market could have a runaway leader and therefore second place might be the only place achievable. whilst establishing big goals it is also critical that the plan (and goal(s)) is well communicated to the team, and that key decisions are consistent with the goals. No plan or strategy is ever prefect. However, most organisations and teams do far better with a plan and strategy than without. Often, the plan is imperfect but can be adjusted over time. Either way, in almost all situations, a mediocre plan executed with enthusiasm and energy is far superior to no plan at all.

“make a decision, any decision, just make one and get on with it”

4. they’re comfortable with delegation. High-caliber leaders develop great leaders and teams and allow their teams to excel, perform and grow. They constantly look at benchmarks, hold people accountable and follow up with them. However, on a day-to-day basis, their teams are given lots of latitude and autonomy. This is coupled with follow up and looking at what is accomplished. Warren Buffet may be the world’s best example of a leader who has great CEOs, holds them accountable and doesn’t micromanage them.

“delegate until it hurts, then delegate a little more”

5. They praise often (but only where it is due). A great leader understands that part of team-building is constantly looking for what people are doing well and encouraging more of that behaviour. Great leaders provide praise, recognise what is done well and motivate more of that to be done. They look for what people do exceptionally well and they look to promote those doing great things.

6. They make hard personnel decisions. The best leaders understand that not everyone is a fit for every job. They are not willing to tolerate mediocrity in their teams or organisations. For example, someone who is not great at something might be given another try at a different role where they may shine. One of the best leaders I have worked for taught me that it was very hard to change people. His view was that it was easier to “change the person than to change a person.”

7. They are emotionally mature. Great leaders do not fly off the handle or make rash decisions, but they do follow their instincts strongly. A remarkable leader does not react to every issue with a great deal of stress. Rather, he or she can take things in, move forward and keep a team on board. A leader’s ability to manage emotions, both his or her own and as those of team members is critical.

“nothing is as good or bad as it first seems”


culture, influencing, leadership, team development