You may not be a CEO, but chances are you’ll probably be called upon to lead at some point, whether it’s a project, a team, or a company. And no matter what you’re in charge of, you’ll want to do the best you can to be effective, respected, and valuable in that role.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. What actually makes someone a strong leader? Well, while everyone finds their own approach to leadership, there are certain qualities that many great leaders share. Here are some common characteristics of those at the top:
Great leaders have a vision for their project, department, or organization. “And they can communicate that vision clearly, so if I went to the lowest person [in the organization], they’d be able to tell you what that vision is,” says Carol Lempert, a leadership-development expert. Take Walt Disney, for instance. “Years ago, he articulated that his vision was going to be to create magical experiences for the guests who come to Disney World. Now everybody who works there, from the actor in the Mickey Mouse suit to the person serving ice cream, understands that the vision is to make a magical experience.”
2. Executive Presence
Many people will say that a leader has a certain something, a “wow factor,” a presence that suggests they’re in charge. Some might call it charisma. “How does that person make those around them feel?” Lempert says. “Do they feel stupid and worse about themselves?” Or does that person inspire confidence and make people feel like they’re being heard?
To really connect with the people you’re leading, you must also treat them with respect. “Early in my career, I worked for a guy who would just show up in my office and start barking orders at me and then leave like a bomb was dropped,” Lempert says. “I would feel startled and anxious. Later, I had a boss who would gently knock on the door and say, ‘I need to talk to you about X. It’s probably going to take an hour. Is now a good time?’” For Lempert, the boss who set clear expectations and was respectful of her time was the better leader.
Someone with integrity does what they say they’ll do. “Without integrity, you don’t have trust,” says Dana Theus, an executive and career coach with InPower Coaching. “Leaders need to be trusted, and the way they gain that is with integrity.” This applies to both big and small situations, from fulfilling a high-dollar promise to making it to meetings on time.
To inspire a group, a leader must build credibility and trust. One important way to do that is through consistent, meaningful, and effective communication. “Providing access to what is going on in an organization through meaningful communication routes, and doing so on a consistent basis, establishes a sincerity that sets the stage for successful change,” says Steve Weingarden, an industrial-organizational psychologist and president of Innovators of Change.
6. Growth Mindset
True leaders are always looking for things to learn or ways to better master their craft or their industry. They have open minds and are interested in improvement and professional development. “Natural curiosity has brought them to a leadership position,” says Darko Jacimovic, career expert and co-founder of WhatToBecome.com. “They will want to know about the latest innovations, achievements in the industry, or ideas on how to improve the working processes.”
As a leader, you must be able to understand your team and relate to the problems they’re facing. This means being a good listener, being attentive, and making an effort to understand the needs of others. That said, too much empathy can put a leader in a tough position, Theus says. “You have to make decisions with compassion, and you have to have empathy in your toolkit, but you must balance it with some tough love.”
One quality that’s essential in a good leader is the ability to support and lift up others. A leader who’s in the trenches with their team inspires people to work harder. “I’ve had bosses who tell me what to do and then disappear, and I’ve had ones who are doing the same work with me or their own work, but who are clearly there, working with me,” says Stacy Caprio, founder of Growth Marketing. “And I’ve always felt more motivated and cared about when they’re in the trenches with me than when they give an order and peace out.”
A great leader has their eyes on the prize. They’re organized, they think ahead, and they’re intent on their path to success. “Leaders who have focus are a great asset to companies, as they are results-oriented and are committed to being the best and bringing the best out of everyone,” says Kenny Trinh, founder and CEO of media startup Netbooknews. “They don’t get easily distracted by problems and failures. They are resilient and headstrong.”
Good leaders are always looking to find, encourage, and grow the next generation of leaders. “They don’t feel that ‘only I can do this,’ but instead look for the potential in others,” says Karen Southall Watts, professional encourager and author of The Solo Workday. “A great leader takes pride in the accomplishments of others and knows that helping others to achieve in no way detracts from their leadership.”
There are many qualities that are essential to being a great leader. Some of them may come naturally to you, and others may not. But the more you can develop these qualities in your own skill set, the more successful you’ll be.