What makes a good leader? 16 crucial traits, skills, and qualities

While we all find ourselves in different stages and on different paths and during our life’s journey, many of us look to leaders for inspiration, advice, and guidance. All of us, however, also have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of others, whether in our private lives or at work. As a leader, to make the most of interactions with business partners, team members, employees, and clients, you will need to possess various important characteristics, skills, and traits. Whether you’re managing teams in an office setting or running your own business, you will need to be able to encourage others to believe and act with perseverance to achieve the highest goals. Leaders with great leadership qualities can inspire their teams to accomplish amazing things. Of course, non-negotiable leadership characteristics include trustworthiness as well as excellent communication and active listening skills. But there’s a whole host of other skills that are becoming increasingly important in these times where chaos and uncertainty rule. Have a look at the following 15 crucial qualities that make a great leader.

1. A clear vision for the future

Some of the most charismatic leaders of our time were able to outline and articulate a crystal clear vision of how they saw their future, which informed and energised the present. The ‘I Have A Dream’ speech by Martin Luther King is one of many great examples. By creating a compelling vision of the future, leaders can achieve things that were previously considered impossible. It enables them to develop clear, meaningful strategies, attract top talent, and take their organisations to a promising future. A vision often comes from the heart, not the head. Through their words and actions, great leaders often already live and breathe their vision, and this is a great way to inspire others to commit, persist, and give their best. Visionary leaders need to be adaptable and agile and incorporate new approaches when changes occur along the way, all the while keeping their focus on the main goal so that they can achieve the results they envision.

2. Collaboration skills

To keep morale among team members high and get the most out of employees in this increasingly competitive environment, leaders need to possess solid collaboration skills and inspire with passion. They need to recognise the importance of building interpersonal and cross-functional relationships based on communication and trust. Collaborative leadership entails breaking down walls and leading horizontal teams in which team members are embraced, feel that they play an integral part in reaching the company’s goals, and where the focus shifts away from micro-management and reporting. Leaders with solid collaboration skills across different disciplines have the ability to facilitate interactions between employees with various skill levels and from different departments and can effectively manage high levels of stress and frustration. Collaborative leaders understand that one doesn’t always have complete control over external circumstances and realise that people will only genuinely commit to their work if they feel motivated and inspired, rather than controlled. 

3. Empathy

For many years, leaders have shied away from showing too many emotions, but according to various studies, the ability to be compassionate and connect with others is critical to our private as well as our professional lives. In fact, empathy is increasingly considered one of the most important soft skills. Today’s successful leaders are more ‘people-oriented’, emotionally intelligent, and unafraid to be relatable and vulnerable. Empathic leaders can imagine themselves in the situation of another and have the ability to be considerate when it comes to the feelings, needs, and perspectives of others. According to the authors of The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace, “leading with empathy involves understanding the unique needs and goals of each team member and how to best match work assignments to contribute to performance as well as employee satisfaction. Team members who see that their manager recognises them in this way are more engaged and willing to go the extra mile.” What’s more, they regard as better leaders who practice empathetic leadership performers by their superiors.

4. The ability to motivate and inspire

A good leader is a role model and will possess the ability to inspire their team to be motivated and go the extra mile for the mission of the organisation. To motivate others to reach certain goals or objectives, it’s critical to keep the vision in the forefront of your mind and be motivated yourself. If you are unsure whether the work you do matters, it’s unlikely that your employees will know. Your positive and optimistic energy will set the tone for the people who follow you. It will cultivate the mindset you want them to have, especially in the face of challenges. A truly inspiring leader will keep reminding others of the silver lining, even when times are tough. According to Richard Branson, “the ability to inspire is the single most important leadership skill, and the ability to infuse energy, passion, commitment, and connection to an organisation’s mission and direction is essential in any growing company.”

5. Great storytelling skills

One of a leader’s many responsibilities is articulating and connecting their people to a vision, purpose, restructuring plans, or growth ambitions. Whatever message needs to be conveyed, the key to peoples’ hearts is a story. Telling a compelling story helps develop credibility for your ideas and plans. Sure, people can memorise facts and figures, but to change opinions or behaviour or to motivate people to reach certain goals, you need to engage with their emotions. Presenting an idea that helps people visualise and become part of the idea and evokes enough emotional power to be memorable demands creativity, insight and great storytelling skills. Whether you need to win over a team member, a partner or an external shareholder, effective stories that are human-centric, action-focused and clearly contextualised will help you effectively present even the most daunting of ideas or plans. Effective leaders use stories to inspire, build trust, solve conflict, and establish a clear direction. Storytelling can help leaders influence how people think, create a shared vision, encourage employee loyalty, and build hope and trust when guiding an organisation through difficult changes.

6. Technological, emotional, and cultural intelligence

As leaders are responsible for tasks like solving problems, developing strategies, guiding employees, and monitoring the work environment, having a high level of intelligence, as well as strong intellectual, perceptual, verbal, and reasoning skills is crucial. Apart from the obvious mental capacities needed to be a leader, there are many other types of intelligence – such as technological, emotional, and cultural intelligence – that are especially important in leadership roles.

Technological intelligence

Being open to new technologies is one of many important qualities future leaders need to possess. Good leaders are expected to be more technologically intelligent than merely having an understanding of current technologies and how they work. Today’s leaders need to know how to effectively exploit artificial intelligence, cloud computing, data analytics, UX development, and a host of other technologies in order to optimise their chances of business success. They need to stay up-to-date with how evolving and ever-changing technological tools and applications at our disposal can be used most effectively to motivate teams, increase operational effectiveness, and drive growth. You don’t necessarily need a degree in computer science, but you do need to have the ability to translate the technical into the non-technical – clear messaging that translates into action. Good leaders also know how to appreciate what the next generation can bring to the table, not only through technological advances but through their fresh, out-of-the-box ideas as well.

Emotional intelligence

Besides technological intelligence, there’s the emotional element to consider. Emotional intelligence, which consists of competencies like self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management, is what will help you successfully collaborate with others, give feedback, manage stress, and coach teams. According to Harvard Business Review, “Emotional intelligence accounts for nearly 90 percent of what sets high performers apart from peers with similar technical skills and knowledge.” Our growing interest in and need for emotional intelligence – especially in leadership roles – is a direct result of the ambiguity and volatility of today’s society. Experienced communicators who have the ability to manage their own emotions and those of others generally know how to empathise with the people around them and respond appropriately to various situations. They lead with a human touch and inspire confidence in their teams – which, in this era of artificial intelligence, is becoming an increasingly important skill. Emotionally intelligent leaders have the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They are good listeners, give constructive feedback, help develop the people on their team, and challenge those who act unfairly.

Cultural intelligence

In the past couple of years, globalisation has significantly impacted international (business) affairs. And now that the world is becoming more and more interconnected and significant challenges can no longer be solved by one or a handful of individuals, one culture or even one continent alone, collaboration across borders, languages, and cultures is more important than ever before. And this is where cultural intelligence comes in. It picks up where emotional intelligence leaves off, and it’s not just about being aware of other cultures or recognising the importance of diversity. Culturally intelligent leaders are able to work in diverse situations, are able to cross boundaries and prosper in different settings. They are attuned to the values, needs, emotions, customs, and beliefs of people from different cultures and use this to relate to others with understanding and empathy. Being culturally aware can make you a more influential leader, improve team morale, and ensure improved access to knowledge, resources, and talent.

7. Creative thinking skills

While creativity is an important skill in any position, it is particularly critical for people managing a team. Creative leaders have the ability to come up with innovative solutions and can create clarity of purpose for their teams – particularly when faced with complex and changing situations. Creative leaders not only have the ability to initiate innovative and original ideas themselves, they also inspire their team members to do the same. Creative leadership helps create a work environment in which people are encouraged to break with traditional methods and processes, and instead embrace new and unorthodox ideas. And by rewarding their team members for coming up with novel ideas or designing innovative products, they keep encouraging an even more supportive and open work environment. As Dan Palotta writes for Harvard Business Review, “The best creativity comes from a desire to contribute to the lives of others, either by introducing something new that improves the quality of their lives or by showing people that something thought to be impossible is in fact possible. When you change people’s perceptions about what can be accomplished or achieved, you contribute to their humanity in the richest possible way. You give them hope for the future.”

8. Flexibility

In today’s fast-paced, diverse, and increasingly complex business environment where change is constant and inevitable, leaders need to be flexible and agile. Flexible leaders have the ability to adapt to and manage the unexpected and plot new courses of action to deal with changing circumstances. This way, they are able to maintain productivity during times of crisis or transition. Leaders with this competency revise plans as and when necessary, are able to work with a wide range of people, are open to new ideas, and consider other people’s concerns during periods of change. To be able to prevail through uncertainty, it’s important for leaders to view disruption as an opportunity instead of a threat, and to not only embrace but also encourage change in their teams. Flexibility will enable leaders and their teams to foster increased productivity, a stronger sense of ownership, and greater resilience in the face of changing circumstances.

9. Coaching skills

Contrary to autocratic or top-down leadership, coaching leaders focus on guiding teams through obstacles and towards goals, bringing out the best in their people. Companies are increasingly realising that leadership that incorporates coaching skills is a much more effective and desirable pathway to progress. Coaching leaders motivate, inspire, and engage their teams while simultaneously respecting and caring about each team member as an individual. The best coaching leaders create environments in which open and honest feedback is encouraged and mistakes are treated as learning opportunities. Coaching leaders guide their people to professional growth and develop them for the future by helping to identify their strengths and weaknesses and formulating professional development plans. Using a coaching approach to listening, questioning, and planning action, leaders can foster effective working relationships with their team members. This will empower teams to take charge and make decisions independently, which will not only benefit the people who are directly involved, but also lead to a more successful organisation.

10. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

Modern leaders have many tasks that encompass uncertainty. They need to evaluate, develop, motivate, innovate, grow, and take risks. And many of these things will be intimidating if you aren’t willing or able to leave your comfort zone. In fact, real leadership begins at the end of your comfort zone. And during these trying times of increasing chaos and uncertainty, the most efficient and successful leaders are those who work well in unknown conditions. Leaders who ‘feel at home’ amidst changing situations and uncertainty are better prepared for any challenges that may lie ahead. Effective leaders continuously challenge everything – the organisation, the stakeholders, the best practices, the company culture, and the talent. But they especially challenge themselves, to leave their comfort zone and go over and beyond. This helps them in guiding their team to move past their discomfort and take steps into the unknown. The result? Increased confidence and a culture in which calculated risk-taking becomes less daunting.

11. The ability to persuade 

In order to motivate people and bring team or company goals and objectives to fruition, leaders also need to possess persuasion skills. But don’t mistake this for manipulating or pushing people to get them to do something, as truly persuasive leaders understand their power and use it knowingly and sparingly. We’re talking about charismatic leaders who use effective communication, logical, rational arguments, and connection in order to positively influence beliefs and behaviours. Connection is important as it builds trust, which in turn helps with persuasion. In order to build trust and persuade people to work according to a certain plan, leaders need to know what’s important to their team members. Leaders who have the ability to persuade also possess excellent communication and public speaking skills. And if team members can see that following the plan will also help them accomplish their own individual goals, they are more likely to be persuaded by their leader.

12. Being able to trust the experience of others

Most leaders have acquired leadership positions because of their expertise in a certain field. But once at the top, a leader’s most important task is to lead a team, without getting hung up on no longer being the best-informed person. Well-known leaders like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson are reputed to have said things along the lines of “It’s pointless to hire smart people and then ignore their input,” and it’s true – two pairs of eyes see more than one. Experts in a certain field dedicate their time to becoming pros at their jobs – which is why organisations hire them. Yet for some leaders it’s very hard to admit that these experts might be more knowledgeable than them. One of many critical skills of a modern leader, however, is to develop discernment – to listen to opposing views and accept that an expert might recommend things that you don’t necessarily (have the knowledge to) agree with. Leaders are not specialists or experts, they are generalists who often need to depend on the experts and advisers around them. “The transition to generalist management can signal the end for successful specialist managers. But if you realise that you no longer have to be, or even should be, the expert, this can be the most fulfilling and satisfying moment in your career. Your role as a leader is to bring out the best in others, even when they know more than you,” according to Wanda Wallace, president and CEO of coaching and consulting firm Leadership Forum, and David Creelman, CEO of human capital management firm Creelman Research.

13. The ability to predict

One of the most significant challenges facing companies and other organisations is planning for the future. And while we can’t exactly predict what will happen a couple of years from now, what we can do is apply our creativity and imagination to create potential scenarios and discover future possibilities. Leaders with ‘predictive’ abilities have extensive knowledge networks that help them can stay on top of important trends and developments, but they also have incredible imaginations. Renowned business thinker and author Peter Drucker famously said, “The only way to predict the future is to create it.” And this starts by imagining your preferred future and articulating your vision. Where would you like to be in ten years’ time? What does your ideal work environment look like, and how would you like to feel about yourself and your accomplishments? The answers to these questions will paint a picture, a vision, for others as well. And when the picture is clear and inspiring enough, it will guide behaviours and motivate people to take action towards turning this vision of the future into reality.

14. Diplomatic and depolarisation skills

In diverse working environments where people are encouraged to take risks and openly voice their opinions, tense situations and conflict are bound to emerge every now and then. The challenge in conflict situations is to try and seek out a consensus, and to find a way forward that is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. Finding common ground or something positive to focus on will contribute to depolarisation and helps achieve constructive disagreement. A leader with diplomatic and depolarisation skills will understand that conflict can actually be instrumental in the growth and development of the organisation. It is, however, important for leaders to have the ability to defuse and calm tense situations and encourage team members to restore communication and positive engagement. Ending the conversation to avoid or defuse conflict can lead to strained relationships, where polarisation remains and colleagues become opponents. Constructive depolarisation is about overcoming barriers. And by encouraging people to work together, even if there are different perspectives or disagreements, the resulting collaboration often leads to profound results.

15. Maker instinct

Being a good leader also means having a maker instinct – the ability to express and exploit one’s inner drive to build and grow things – and the ability to encourage team members to express and exploit theirs. Leaders who express their maker instinct have a can-do and can-make attitude. They make time, make sense, make plans, and make money. They prefer a DIY approach to problem solving instead of looking to external answers to challenges, such as third-party providers or product or service offerings. The DIY approach isn’t an individual undertaking, however, but rather a community-driven one, a team effort, and leaders with a maker instinct will inspire others to contribute and succeed. They are not afraid of starting small and experimenting in order to bring people, communities, and organisations together around common interests and shared goals. According to Bob Johansen, author of Leaders Make the Future, “Many people don’t realise their own maker instinct and potential. It must be recognised, valued, and nurtured if it is to become a leadership skill for the future. Beyond do-it-yourself, leaders need to nurture do-it-ourselves. The maker instinct must be amplified by connection.” 

16. The ability to turn challenges into opportunities

Great leaders are full-time problem solvers. They are available to troubleshoot all kinds of challenges – from conflict in the team to dissatisfied business partners – and turn challenges into opportunities. Great leaders continuously push themselves to change, pivot, and take risks in order to get over the next obstacle. To stagnate is to perish. If leaders didn’t pivot, many of the great companies we see today would not have existed. Their seemingly insurmountable obstacles were actually blessings in disguise. Instead of their stories ending as a lesson in failure, they were lessons in the power of pivoting at the right moment. As renowned futurist and thought leader Richard van Hooijdonk says: “What I’ve learned early on is that if you don’t adapt and change, you won’t succeed. It’s either pivot or fade away. We need to continuously think about adapting and growing, because as soon as you become complacent, as I’ve seen in many organisations around me, you will deteriorate.”

In closing

Being a great leader means navigating obstacles and keeping your eye on the vision, even when the going gets tough. If you learn from your mistakes, listen to your employees and colleagues, and never stop problem solving, you’ll turn challenges into great leadership. And while inspiration, motivation, and empathic communication can turn managers into strong leaders, it’s action, fairness, and dependability that will earn you the trust, support, and respect needed to be truly successful. As Bhaji Rath says, “A great leader possesses a clear vision, is courageous, has integrity, honesty, humility and clear focus. Great leaders help people reach their goals, are not afraid to hire people that might be better than them and take pride in the accomplishments of those they help along the way.” The crisis following the pandemic will eventually dissipate, but what will remain is a new type of leadership, one that has emerged as a result of the way we are working at this moment. Traits, skills, and qualities that will always be important include trustworthiness, excellent communication, determination, and passion. But since 2020 has shuffled the deck – and 2021 will undoubtedly bring about some more shuffling – new must-have leadership characteristics, like the ones described in this article, will greatly improve our chances at success in this brave, new world.

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