Are leaders born or made? It’s an important question, especially for those who aspire to head up teams or companies, be the face of a movement, or help others achieve greatness.
Some believe that true leaders are born that way—naturally charismatic, influential, and inspiring individuals who are destined to make a mark. But while certain people may be naturally predisposed to leadership, just as they’re naturally predisposed to athleticism or musicality, we believe it’s absolutely possible to cultivate the characteristics and skills necessary to call yourself a leader. As legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.”
So whether you were born with the “special sauce” or not, if you want to be a leader you’re going to have to work to develop and refine the characteristics of the greats. Read on to learn some of the specific traits that are critical for leadership—and how any one of us can work on nurturing them in our careers.
Leadership Trait #1: A Clear, Achievable Vision
Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.
True leaders have the capacity to develop a big vision—one that inspires and motivates their team—and turn it into reality. This requires not only a passion for the vision, but the clarity to communicate it and the intelligence and experience necessary to execute it.
How to Work on It
Start by setting a clear vision for yourself. Pick a method that works best for you—whether it’s making a vision board or making lists—and start laying out some of your biggest goals right now. Make sure to be specific; for example, don’t just say you want to move forward in your career, say you want to land a new job at the manager level by the end of Q1. Ultimately, you want each goal you set to have a measurable outcome (like the number of freelance clients you bring in or the amount of money you want to help generate for the business) and a timeframe associated with them.
Once you have your inspiring goal ahead of you, lay out some baby steps or set up some habits to help you actually do it. The more you practice setting and achieving goals for yourself, the more you’ll be able to lead others to do this down the road.
Further Reading: How to Set Ambitious Career Goals You Can Realistically Accomplish
Leadership Trait #2: The Ability to Influence and Inspire
I think it’s important to move people beyond just dreaming into doing. They have to be able to see that you are just like them, and you made it.
Remember that your work and its success isn’t solely dependent on you; good leaders know how to rally the people around them toward the same overarching goal. If you want your team, your friends, or even random strangers on the internet to follow your lead, you need to get clear on where you want to take them, start down that path yourself, and be willing to hear them and help them along the way.
How to Work on It
Whenever you’re pitching an idea or talking about something you’ve worked on—whether it’s talking to your boss about a new way to approach a process or bringing a big new project to your team—see it as an important opportunity to practice this skill. Take some time to carefully plan out how you’re going to both help people emotionally connect with your idea (a.k.a., getting them excited!) and also convince them that it’s totally feasible with the help of some tactical steps for moving forward. Great ideas can fall to the wayside if they’re not communicated well, so be sure to practice and refine this! Giving your pitch to a friend or mentor before you give it to the powers that be can be a great way to figure out what you’re missing before it really matters.
Leadership Trait #3: The Capacity to Adapt
A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others.
The only constant—in work and in life—is change, and a good leader knows how to navigate that inevitability. Change shouldn’t be viewed as an obstacle, but rather as a chance to be inventive, adaptable, and decisive in the face of uncertainty. It’s also the perfect opportunity to show others that they can rely on you to make big decisions.
How to Work on It
Change can be stressful, so one of the first steps in learning this skill is getting over the feeling of panic that can set in during a shifting situation—or at least getting more comfortable with the feeling. So, look for ways to put yourself in settings where change is happening, like in an organization that’s always innovating or on a brand new project at work. When you find your heart rate rising in the face of change, remind yourself that it’s an opportunity for you or your organization to become better than ever.
Once you feel comfortable, you can take it a step further and be an agent of change. Whether you’re in charge or not, seek out smart ways to shake things up, think outside of the box, or facilitate needed change, so you can practice and showcase your inventiveness and adaptability.
Want to Grow Your Leadership Skills? Check Out Open Roles at Unilever
Leadership Trait #4: A Willingness to Accept Responsibility
If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.
As the leader of a team, you assume responsibility not just for yourself and your work, but for the work, attitude, and accomplishments of others, too. This is no small feat; you are stepping up to ensure that you will not only show your team where to go and what to do, but also encourage them, answer questions, track progress, and provide motivation. Why? Because their success is your success—and their failure is yours, too.
How to Work on It
As long as you work with at least one other person, you can start working on this skill today! Every team project, client campaign, or even daily staff meeting is an opportunity for you to work with your colleagues as a group, offering support, answering questions, and asking how you can help.
And when things don’t go so smoothly? Don’t try to shove it under the rug—face your mistakes head on. Own up to what happened and apologize for it, come to the table with solutions for fixing the problem, and figure out what you can learn moving forward to keep it from happening again. As communication expert Amanda Berlin shares, “A lesser person might run and hide. By showing up, acknowledging your misstep, and offering solutions, you begin to show your character.” Your character as a true leader.
Further Reading: How to Save Face at Work After You’ve Messed Things Up Pretty Badly
Leadership Trait #5: A Desire to Learn and Grow
Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.
A constant desire to learn and grow is an important personal and professional characteristic, whether you want to be a leader or not. Leaders are curious, open-minded, and invested in their growth—the very best of them are always working to be better!
How to Work on It
In your daily life, seek out opportunities to learn more about how to be a leader. (Hey, just by reading this article, you’re off to a great start!) Is there an upcoming client campaign or team-building activity that you can offer to take the charge on? An organization you can work for that has programs to help employees grow? Are there leaders you admire who you can reach out to for coffee—maybe even finding your next mentor along the way? Any leadership books or podcasts you can consume in your free time?
There are so many opportunities for learning—you just have to have the motivation to pursue them.
Further Reading: 10 Books That’ll Bring Out the Leader in Everyone Who Reads Them
Michael Jordan once said true leaders must “earn your leadership every day.” Doing this is a lifetime pursuit, and as with all personal and professional development, there will always be new skills to learn, new ways to strengthen your character, and new opportunities to put your leadership into practice.
Here’s to becoming more of a leader every day—whether you consider yourself to be “born with it” or not.