7 Characteristics That Set Great Leaders Apart

man-apart-from-others-Michelle M SmithNo one is perfect, and that goes for our leaders too—even though we may wish differently for them. We want them to be near perfect in their ability to inspire us to do great work, accomplish important things for the organization, and lead us with humanity and unquestionable character.

Great leaders spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve their organizations and the people within them. Deb Cheslow, author of Remarkable Courage, has spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a great leader, and the characteristics below are adapted from her writings.

Do the right things, even when no one is watching

Have integrity and character to complement your ability to get things done. It’s easy to do the right thing when you have an audience, but it takes courage and strength of character to do the right thing when you’re alone. Stay true to your values even when everyone around you is floundering, or when popular opinion goes against what you know in your heart to be right.

Take personal responsibility

Follow rules, report facts accurately, treat people fairly, and don’t lie, cheat, or steal to advance your agenda. Hold yourself accountable for your actions and decisions and for the actions of the people under your authority. Don’t make excuses; take the blame when things go wrong and make sure those who do the work get the credit when things go right. Attack root causes of problems and never blame others.

Do whatever it takes, but minimize collateral damage

Achieve outcomes without leaving your followers exhausted, damaged, or demoralized. Achieve your goals within moral and ethical boundaries. Don’t be a leader who falls prey to poor decision making or compromises their character and integrity for what might feel good in the moment.

Develop followers

Build the skills and talents of others and make employees partners in the process of accomplishing goals. Empower your staff to continually improve, share your knowledge and experience generously, and press your team to achieve more, realizing that everyone will be better off the more frequently employees do great work and achieve great success.

Never go it alone

Absorb the input and counsel of numerous advisors, both from similar and opposing perspectives, then devise solutions based upon a well-rounded view of the problem. Understand that it is naïve to believe you’ve considered every possible angle of an issue without seeking outside counsel from a varied and extended network.

Leave people and things better than you found them

Always make a positive difference that benefits everyone. Even when you inherit a situation that’s less than ideal, provide inspiration for rebuilding bigger and better than before.

Be courageous

Defy logic and conventional wisdom and blaze new trails. Don’t dwell on why something can’t be done, but only consider how it might be accomplished. Make a decision, announce it, and then you and your team should set about making it a reality.

What are the leadership traits you value most and believe are essential in a great leader?


Michelle M. Smith

Michelle M. Smith

Michelle M. Smith is Vice President, Marketing, of O.C. Tanner. A highly accomplished international speaker, author, and consultant on performance improvement, Michelle is a respected authority on leadership, internal branding and employee engagement. She’s published and presented more than 1,000 articles and lectures and is a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the UK and the US.

1 Reply to "7 Characteristics That Set Great Leaders Apart"

  • Frank Sleeper
    May 14, 2016 (3:52 pm)

    The laundry list you provided, while I completely agree, is the same list that everyone should be applying in their daily lives, irrespective of role or position or employment status. This list is summarized as “Integrity” which when matured is couple with a healthy morality and overall character.

    While that list defines the attributes of what any good leader should have what I firmly believe is missing is what makes a great leader:

    1. The “right thing” comes first, YOU don’t.
    Everyone around you should know without question what you are going to do or what your decisions would be – WITHOUT having to escalate to your level. That decision or plan must NOT factor YOU into the equation of benefit or consequence. If doing the right thing puts your position or job risk, you do it irrespective.

    2. Your people are human beings
    Sterile leadership will also create a sterile work environment. There is absolutely no replacement for a passionate leadership which results in a passionate work environment and workforce. You absolutely must understand your people are still individuals with friends, parents, a wife and children. They all have different reasons for going to work, motivations, plans and needs. Communicate and spend effort to engage with this in mind and at the top of your priority in emphasis. Simple example? YOU as the leader can make an enormous difference by simply letting someone know how you appreciate them, congratulating them on their accomplishment (be specific!), etc. Remember, this person may have a husband or a wife. The first thing they’re going to do it’s call their significant other and tell them “Guess what my boss just said!”. Proudly the significant other will also tell their children. The children congratulate the parent. On and on it goes. The significance of that minimal effort on your part is enormous!

    The board of directors comes to you when tells you:
    “We simply can’t support are the pay raises you’re proposing. We don’t have the money.”

    You KNOW for a fact if you don’t get done if the raises through you WILL lose critical people before long (not by threat, simply market forces) and the overall product will greatly suffer and you’ll quickly lose clients.

    What do you do?

    Be courageous, be strong, do the right thing! If “money” is the excuse (and you don’t have bloat) TAKE that excuse away from them! One option? You could tell the board you can get them the money quickly. Fire you and distribute YOUR pay for the required and critical raises.

    The point I’m driving at is THIS mind shift QUICKLY creates a SOLID following from your people (both your subordinates as well as those you report to), dramatically increases motivation, enstills and egrains integrity as the mantra and when things go astray (as can happen) the reaction from your organization should naturally be predictable, swift and without your baby sitting…