Discover what ten leadership traits are most important for effective leaders.
Before speaking about the core traits essential for effective leaders, it is necessary to bring up a “weak point” on this discussion: a comprehensive list of such traits could be practically endless.
The following researchers suggested their own leadership traits: the founder of the trait theory, Ralph Stogdill, did it twice (in 1948 and 1974), Mann (in 1959), Lord, de Vader and Alliger (in 1986), Kirkpatrick and Locke (in 1991), Zaccaro, Kemp and Bader (in 2004). 1
Each of these outstanding people introduced their own unique sets of leadership traits.
Only one fact can be stated though: the ideal set of a leader’s traits will evidently never be found, as leadership is a unique phenomenon; even corresponding to general tendencies, each leader has their own leadership character because they have passed through their own life journey, which is always unique.
Nevertheless, we’ll try to present an optimal set of qualities, which allow a leader to be successful in their mission of innovatively transforming the world.
An effective leader’s qualities can be divided into two groups:
Core traits – these constitute the very essence of leadership, the leadership character;
Service traits – these help a leader gain their goals through successful leadership.
It should be noted that this group division is only relative, and does not mean either leadership trait is more or less important than the other.
These groups are sets of characteristics, which enable leaders to inspire people to take the actions required to shape a definite behavior pattern in people and get desirable results.
In this article, we are going to deal with core leadership qualities, and in this category there is intelligence, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, ability to change, freedom, desire to improve the world, innovativeness, effectiveness, sincerity, and charisma.
Considerations about intelligence are forwarded by a short story about an experiment initiated in 1920 by a psychologist named Lewis Terman.
The objective of the experiment was to find the interconnection between the intelligence levels of children and their future living conditions.
Terman’s work was continued by his followers, after his death in 1956. The conclusions found that human gifts play an important but not an independent role in promoting success.
Variables such as education, industry, creativity, commitment, emotional maturity also have an important influence on reaching success.
It is highly likely that the following assertion would be closest to the truth: the higher a person’s intelligence, and the more commitment and diligence they have, the more successful they will be.
It is the cluster of intelligence and diligence and other qualities, which serve as a foundation for leadership and success.
You will most probably agree with the following:
If Albert Einstein had not had a brilliant level of intelligence, his discovery of the theory of relativity would not have taken place, but his diligence,commitment and persistence had certainly contributed to his ability to cover this hard track.
Thomas Carlyle considered that the main predestination of intelligence is our ability to comprehend the essence of the reality around us, have a clear understanding of it, and act on the basis of the information obtained. 2
It is certainly true, as thanks to our intelligence we act one way or another, analyzing the core of things and defining the direction of our energy and thoughts.
Intelligence can be defined as a leader’s ability to analyze the incoming information with the purpose of shaping the optimal behavior and activity pattern of themselves and others.
Isn’t it a leadership approach – thinking and acting?
Intelligence can be rightfully considered one of the core qualities of effective leaders.
2. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is understood as a leaders ability to recognize their emotions and control them, especially negative ones like fear, anger, grief and dismay.
Let’s try and imagine a situation:
A leader had a business meeting regarding the investment support for some future projects. The meeting was not too successful, and the leader came to the office feeling gloomy. The leader didn’t manage to control their negative emotions (anger and disappointment), and they had fully determined a further behavior.
As they say, it may happen to anybody.
In this situation, the reaction of people can easily be simulated: someone is sure to believe that everything is terrible and competitors are swallowing up the company, and someone is sure not to approach the leader with an urgent problem.
A leader’s negative emotions will always be, to some extent, transferred to the staff, which means they will directly affect the whole company under their guidance.
A real danger for a leader is their inability to control their emotions during public speeches.
For instance, an audience can ask rather unpleasant questions; and it is a high level of emotional intelligence that enables a leader not to lose their self-possession and to give adequate answers to the trickiest questions through convincing arguments.
When angry, a person can say something that can affect them not very positively later on.
Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret. – Ambrose Bierce. 3
Fear, anger, dismay – these emotions immobilize a leader, preventing them from effective decision-making, analyzing capacities and conclusion-making.
In such a position, it is near-impossible to inspire people to achieve greatness.
It is important to realize that negative emotions lead to undesirable consequences like rash actions or total inactivity in situations requiring immediate reaction.
A lot of good start-ups have failed because of the dominance of negative emotions such as fear or anger. At that, a person is often prone to overestimating an imagined danger.
A man with a tremendous sense of humor and life experience, named Mark Twain, was probably prone to various fears too; otherwise, he wouldn’t have said the following brilliant phrase:
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. 4
So, a leader’s success is in direct dependence of their skill to control negative emotions. The same can be said about their ability to exercise a positive influence on their employees and followers.
It must be understood that controlling negative emotions does not mean getting rid of them, which is principally impossible.
To control one’s emotions means not to allow them to influence one’s decisions.
The golden rule that “if you do not influence then you are influenced”, is quite true when emotions are concerned. But negative emotions can be your prime allies as well.
For example, if you have fear before a new project, it can be a signal that the forthcoming actions should be briefly analyzed once again. And this probably will allow you to find a more optimal model for the project’s fulfillment. But you should by no means postpone the beginning of the project because of the fear of making mistakes.
Daniel Goleman, the author of the book “Emotional Intelligence” states that it is possible to learn to control one’s emotions, and a person has all chances to develop their emotional intelligence.
Let’s present a few simple recommendations which could help you eventually get rid of some negative emotions: 5
Start analyzing your emotions every day, inspect the emotions displayed in different situations;
Define which of these emotions or habits are the biggest obstacles on the way to reach your most necessary objectives;
Make a chart with two columns. In the left column, make a list of all negative emotions and habits, which you think you possess. In the right column, describe briefly all consequences that these emotions can lead to or have already led to.
Put down your wishes, for instance: “I want to get rid of anger or petulance, I want to be more daring, I want to be optimistic and positive-minded.”
Start controlling yourself, your negative emotions and habits. And remember, persistence and positive thinking will always help you in this process!
Daniel Goleman also suggested probably the best definition for the notion of “emotional intelligence”. He defined it as a motivated movement to goal achievement despite possible failures and flops, the skill to postpone satisfaction and not allow negative emotions or sufferings deprive oneself of the ability to think, hope and sympathize. 6
It should be remembered that ’emotional intelligence’ means not only a skill of controlling negative emotions but also a skill of developing positive ones. Do smile, get surprised sincerely, enjoy the success of the people around you. Your duties would seem more comfortable, and your life could feel more pleasant.
3. Social Intelligence
If emotional intelligence suggests controlling one’s own emotions, social intelligence means a skill to perceive other people’s emotions.
The ability to recognize people’s negative emotions and help them manage such emotions successfully is especially important for effective leaders.
For instance, while communicating with a colleague the socially intelligent leader noticed a shade of doubt on her face, maybe some fear of a future project.
In such a scenario, the leader must recall the developing leadership style and provide more time to discuss the project’s operating procedures and objectives.
A couple of inspiring phrases would be appropriate: “Come on, get to action, I’m sure of your abilities. We’ll manage it!”
After such a discussion, a leader knows for sure that the assignment plot is identified correctly, and a person, being inspired by them, will feel much more confident.
The result is an excellent project performance, which could positively contribute towards the goal.
Social intelligence enables leaders to create an atmosphere of goodwill and openness, which facilitates productive and effective work to the greatest possible extent.
When recognizing people’s negative emotions, a leader has to help manage these emotions through their own role model so the harmful effect caused by negative emotions can be successfully minimized by creating a friendly atmosphere.
It should be noted that effective leaders never manage to build their team with ideal members fully meeting their high requirements; but leaders are quite capable of transforming their team’s conscience, helping them fight their uncertainty and fear that occur from time to time.
This capability plays a special role during a period of change when an effective leader has to use their maximum effort and talent to persuade people that changes are necessary to help them fight their doubts and fears.
Social intelligence is highly useful in the process of business negotiations and meetings.
Understanding people’s ‘vis-`a-vis’ emotions help a leader keep their ground and suggest mutually acceptable solutions.
Here are four recommendations aimed at developing one’s social intelligence: 7
Practice identifying the emotions of people around you during business meetings, conversations, conferences and in every-day communication.
Learn to listen not only to the interlocutor’s speech, but also analyze their words, emotions, and body language.
Think over your answer or reaction considering the information received.
Anticipate your partner’s behavior. This may seem difficult at the beginning, but with time, it will become a habit, and you will learn to understand people’s emotions better and maybe even forecast their following actions.
4. Ability to Change
Let’s remember that according to the transformation theory; initiating changes is one of the main intended functions of an effective leader. Thus, the ability to change can definitely be referred to as a core leadership quality.
A leader with a high ability to change never considers change as a threat, but as an opportunity.
It would be rather useful and sound to follow the principle, that any action aimed at the change of any particular order of things must be logically grounded, and must serve some definite goal.
Besides, an effective leader prepares their staff and colleagues to suggested changes by explaining not only the positive sides of upcoming changes but possible risks and ways to minimize them too.
Open and trust-based relations between a leader and employees are one of the main conditions for changes to be made successfully.
It is important to note, that an effect leader’s task is not just to be able to make necessary changes in a company, but also to shadow out the needed changes.
Sum up changes in economics, politics, society, technology and science according to their possible impact on your company, and note which actions in this regard must be undertaken.
When making changes as a leader, one should pay special attention to the following key issues:
Correct determination of the moment to introduce the process of change;
Understanding of the essence and purpose of suggested changes;
Discussing suggested changes with one’s team and collectively elaborating the forthcoming plan of action;
Having maximum comfort during the change process;
Obtaining positive results.
This small execution plan for changes will probably let you follow this path in the most convenient way:
1. First of all, it is highly important for a leader to determine they are ready for changes.
A lack of confidence is more likely to be conveyed to followers and influence the final output in a negative way.
To stay away from that, it is necessary for a Leader to know about the following:
The purpose of these changes;
What is necessary to be changed;
The way that changes will be executed;
If the company has enough resources;
Who is going to be involved in the change process and whether they are experienced and qualified enough for that:
The anticipated result from changes, benefits and advantages that these changes will make for the people and the company.
2. Discuss the need and purpose of the upcoming changes with an inner-circle.
At this stage, having received people’s opinions and suggestions, a leader should take a final decision whether to go through necessary changes or turn them down for the time being.
If the execution of changes is decided, it would be rather advisable to:
Jointly determine the plan of action, preferably setting it down in writing (the terms, resources, goal, and people who will participate in this process);
Identify phases of the change process;
Appoint a person in charge and create a team;
3. Communicate a plan for change to employees who are going to be involved in its execution.
At this stage, it is necessary to:
Analyze again their ability to carry out the assigned mission;
Ensure that everybody understands the final purpose of changes and their own role in this process;
4. Begin the change process.
As the process goes underway, it should be unambiguously explained to people what they are rewarded for and where they make mistakes;
To reward the best employees and discharge those who cannot cope with the task;
To introduce people to new values such as effectiveness, creativeness, ability to take a deliberate risk, ability to work in a team. An effective leader should be able to convey what is important to them in this project so employees will be more likely to follow them.
Control over the performance of the person in charge by means of occasional contact;
5. To celebrate victory altogether, reward the most effective employees and set out new goals and plans.
So then, a Leader’s ability to change finds its expression in their skill to undertake forestalling actions, directed to the transformation of a situation, with the purpose of facilitating the successful development of a company.
Answering the question “what is freedom?” requires reading a dozen or more works on history and philosophy.
Let’s try and define what “freedom” is and what it requires for effective leadership.
Philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev introduces an interesting thought in his book “The Meaning of the Creative Act”:
Creative work is inseparable from freedom. Only a free individual is capable of creative acts. Out of necessity only evolution originates, creative work originates out of freedom. 8
What a brilliant citation!
Only an absolutely free person can make the revolutionary changes necessary to move civilizations onwards and upwards.
A person experiencing pressure from top officials are hardly able to create anything great and significant.
I suggest remembering Steve Jobs’ pearl – іPhone, which he created after his return to Apple when the nebulous power of his Board of Directors was not looming over him any longer; though, frankly speaking, he did not suffer much from this burden before either. Nevertheless, he returned to the company, being already much freer, with greater autonomy and an invaluable (directly and figuratively speaking) experience.
An effective leader needs freedom to build, create and introduce the world with innovations.
Such a leader normally creates jointly with their followers and colleagues.
I simply cannot help quoting American writer William Allen White who once said;
Liberty is the only thing you can’t have unless you give it to others.9
An effective leader will never be able to create masterpieces or exercise innovative break-throughs if they work with people who do not feel free and are afraid of taking even minimal risks.
Such a leader faces one of the most complex tasks: remain free oneself, retain the freedom for others, and at the same time be firm and categorical as a leader.
Here it is necessary to make a small note that there is no absolute freedom. All of us must abide by laws, which distinctly regulate what may be done and what must not be done.
Ethics suggests that we should follow a certain pattern of behavior approved by society, traditions and customs and strive to invade our individuality and freedom.
However, freedom is not an ephemeral notion, and leaders are quite capable of ensuring it for both themselves and their followers if they arrange equal conditions while working at projects and assignments by predetermining independent decision-making along with a free creative approach.
To avoid chaos and misrule, a company must constitute a general consolidated statute with rules, which are obligatory for all employees irrespective of their position in a company.
In any case, understanding the freedom required is a cornerstone of a company’s successful development and will enable an effective leader will do their utmost to secure such freedom.
Besides, I would like you to pay attention to inner freedom and free spirit that is very important for a leader.
It will help people avoid stereotypes and contribute to nonstandard decision-making as well as to taking a risk if necessary.
Only those people having gained inner freedom and peace are able to change the world and, consequently, perform a leadership mission.
Summing it up, freedom for a leader means the possibility to plan their actions independently, to determine paths for a company’s development and create conditions facilitating full-scale realization of employees’ gifts and talents.
All of that is possible only on one condition: a leader should have inner freedom, a kind of rebellious spirit driving them over any barriers towards achieving their goals.
6. Desire to Improve the World
The talk about this quality begins with the success story of Muhammad Yunus.
Born in Bangladesh, he got an excellent education in the USA after winning an educational grant.
Following his graduation, Yunus worked in the University of Tennessee (USA), then in the University of Chittagong (Bangladesh).
In 1976, as a Professor of Economics, he started his own bank where he worked first as a project manager, and in 1983, he became the bank manager.
Engaged in financial activity, Yunus brilliantly managed to realize his idea of micro-crediting, presenting practical proof of his notion that caring for people can be the basis of a successful business.
The main point of his idea was allotting small credits to the least secured people at a very small interest, without security and a guarantor.
The only condition was that the money must be spent on starting a small family business.
In 2006, Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the realization of a socially important commercial project. However, everything began with his desire to improve the world and make people’s standard of living better.
This worthy result is a good example to state that orientation on people’s needs and the true desire to do good is a ticket to commercial success and the source of constant development.
Innovativeness is the quality which, in Jobs’ opinion “distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. 10
The innovative іPhone made Apple a leader in the smartphone market, even though Steve Jobs was known to call his first іPhone, tongue-in-cheek, a usual phone in an unusual design during one of its presentation sessions.
A company can be the first in view of such an index as a market share, but it will become a leading company only after its products or services are ranked as innovative ones, and obtain wide customers’ support and approval.
A perfect example of an innovative product is a camera made in 1948 by the firm Polaroid offering a ready-printed photo, or a pager, which became Motorola’s world surprise in 1956.
Speaking of contemporary leaders, the chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, is a prime example.
Musk’s name is associated with numerous ambitious and innovative projects such as Tesla, which are the electric cars not of the future, but of the present, and the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecrafts which are reusable orbital launch vehicles.
At the time of writing, Elon Musk actively participates in another rather ambitious and innovative project of creating a satellite system, which would provide Internet access from any place around Earth and Mars.
An effective leader is obliged to think of innovations and changes, to introduce them in a company under their guidance, and encourage their colleagues and followers for innovation.
Besides, one should bear in mind that innovativeness is not only a creation of a new unique product; it is also a change in the company management system, and the introduction of new energy-efficient technologies to name a few.
So, innovativeness for a leader is defining and realizing goals with the use of new, previously unknown methods and solutions, the achievement of which shows new possibilities for would-be consumers and the company.
Leaders’ actions are determined by reaching goals and obtaining results which facilitate an organisations further development.
Here’s a more detailed analysis of the terms “goal” and “result”:
The goal is what a leader is planning to reach or realize.
The result is the consequence of achieving that goal.
The following example can illustrate these notions: Tesla Motors set a goal to begin the commercial manufacture of electric cars and it succeeded.
As a result of reaching their goal:
The epoch of decline for petrol engine automobiles began;
The contribution was made, whatever small, towards ecological improvement;
Customers were offered a new, innovative, and economical automobile with rather good technical characteristics;
The company created a basis for further development because the car introduced has an evident demand and secures a much-needed profit along with investor-confidence.
Another example of goal achievement is the creation of Microsoft’s Windows Vista Operating System.
Probably, while working at Vista, the Microsoft Company was planning to create an operating system surpassing the previous one with its characteristics; and in a way, they succeeded, but Vista appeared to be much more resource-consuming than Windows XP, it was much more expensive and generally met a rather cold welcome from the users.
The goal was reached, but its results appeared to be dim: consumers were disappointed and – as a consequence – there was no expected profit.
This example demonstrates quite clearly that goal achievement does not at all mean gaining success.
Consequently, a leaders effectiveness can be defined as achieving goals, which creates the grounds for the further development of a company under their guidance.
Sincerity, according to Thomas Carlyle, makes the first characteristic feature of the great man. 11
Therein lies a leader’s strength – being sincere with one’s followers, always keeping one’s word and promise.
An excellent piece of advice on the point can be found in a very wise book:
But let your communication be, Yes, yes; No, no: for whatever is more than these comes of evil. 12
A leader should exclude from their vocabulary phrases such as “Probably, we’ll manage it”.
An effective leaders words, based upon their experience, knowledge, and insight must always sound distinctly and confidently.
Yes, we’ll manage it.
There is some understatement concealing the truth, weakness and a lack of confidence in the word ’probably’, which will certainly be transferred, willingly or not, to the followers.
A leader must inform their team about forthcoming difficulties openly and honestly, and search for ways to overcome them together.
Sincerity will help a leader create a friendly and confiding atmosphere, which, according to Fiedler’s contingency theory, will positively influence the process of goal achievement.
Moreover, sincerity will enable a leader to earn a sound reputation of a reliable person whose word can be trusted.
Thus, the notion of “sincerity” for a Leader is defined here as a full conscience of words and deeds, exceptional honesty and truthfulness.
If I were suggested to choose the prime core quality out of an effective leader’s features it would surely be charisma.
Let’s try and puzzle out what this quality is.
Each of us heard this popular expression more than once – “a charismatic leader”; and the question would spring up despite itself: is there a non-charismatic leader?
Probably there isn’t; because a leader is, first and foremost, the one who makes people follow them; and charisma in this aspect is their first assistant, like a magnet which draws followers to their leader.
The expression “a charismatic leader” is usually applied to leaders demonstrating its external attributes.
Look at this photo of Jack Welch!
One glance is enough to conclude that here we see a charismatic leader.
If you were lucky to listen to his speeches (though with the Internet anyone can do it), you would not have the slightest doubt as to his charisma: a characteristic look, a distinct, confident and clever speech.
All this constitutes the external demonstration of charisma.
It’s true to say, that there are leaders of another type, whose external charisma is not so noticeable, nevertheless, millions of people would like to follow them and listen to their wise words.
Such Leaders attract not with external, but with internal attributes of charisma, and their quiet but confident speech inspires the followers to action no less than a loud and distinct appeal.
The brilliant example of such a leader is the 14th Dalai Lama.
The writer, Marianne Williamson, gave a wonderful definition of charisma:
Charisma is a sparkle in people that money can’t buy. It’s an invisible energy with visible effects. 13
In order to get a sense of a leader’s charisma, let’s consult “Collins Dictionary of Sociology” which defines the notion of “charisma” as special personal qualities or gifts, required from an individual and necessary for them to exercise an impact on huge heaps of people who become their enthusiasts. 14
This serious and reliable book is quite trustworthy, so we may conclude that an effective leader’s charisma is a set of certain qualities which enable them to demonstrate a charismatic leadership behavior.
Consequently, it is worth analyzing which attributes a person should possess to become a charismatic leader.
The 14th Dalai Lama, Jack Welch and many other leaders show the presence or absence of charisma, first of all, in their manner of communication.
Reasoning from this it is important to consider such a quality as sociability.
A person who cannot set out their ideas clearly, forcibly and in an easily perceivable form will never attract anybody.
Taking into consideration that the ability to inspire for a goal achievement directly depends on communication skills, it is quite clear that sociability is one of the key constituents of charisma.
For example, think back to Steve Jobs’ brilliant Apple presentations!
It should be taken into consideration that excellent communication skills imply not only the ability to be a good speaker, but also the ability to be a careful listener.
Making effective communication is in direct dependence on a leader’s emotional maturity and emotional intelligence.
It is clear that anyone would hardly wish to communicate with a person who cannot control their emotions.
Even when one is a very skillful communicator or leader, one should always bear in mind that negative emotions, if there are any, can severely distort the meaning of their speech.
Emotional maturity is another obligatory constituent of charisma.
Well, the time has come “to dress” charisma in another component – positive energy.
A leader expresses and “radiates” energy with their clear and open look, confident tread, firm handshake, clever and inspiring speech.
Positive energy enables a leader to share optimism with their followers during a hard time and tune them for greater achievements.
If charisma is rightfully called as the core leadership quality, willpower, in my opinion, should be referred to as a fundamental attribute of charisma.
Despite unfavorable circumstances, which appear at times, willpower helps a leader proceed forward, and inspire confidence in their followers.
Without it a leader is hardly able to inspire people to necessary actions.
Ridley Scott’s film about Christopher Columbus “1492: Conquest of Paradise” demonstrates a good example of this quality.
When the great seaman sailed for unknown lands for the first time, it was only his willpower that helped him not to turn back from the chosen course despite his crew being eager to return. He gave his sailors a firm and solid promise that the land was near, and the goal would be reached soon.
This episode appears to be very close to reality.
So, let’s draw the line and formulate a hypothesis:
If charisma is a set of definite attributes, it consists of abilities to communicate with people (sociability), to control one’s emotions (emotional intelligence), to demonstrate the rightness of the chosen path, to move forward despite the hardships (willpower) and external demonstration of optimism (positive energy).
Charisma helps a leader to inspire in people the actions necessary for meeting objectives, be a role-model to be followed, and support them in their improvement.
Robert Brault once noted;
Charisma is not so much getting people to like you as getting people to like themselves when you’re around. 15
It is also worth remembering the behaviorist theory postulate and the result of our modest research that it is possible to learn to become a leader.
Consequently, knowing that charisma is a set of certain attributes, one can conclude quite logically that these attributes can be developed in a person independently.
Thus, charisma is a complex of attributes which help a leader influence people and inspire them to actions needed for goal achievement.
This article of the most important leadership traits is an adapted version of Chapter 8 from Adil Alekperov’s book entitled ‘Leadership Formula‘.
About the author
Adil Alekperov is a Ukrainian leadership and strategy consultant based in Kiev. He has an MA in Sociology (with distinctions) from Kharkov National University and is currently completing his MBA at the University of South Wales (UK). He is a Senior consultant for Green Oasis Strategy and author of the book “Leadership Formula” – a book about leadership and leaders. The book analyzes the characteristics, qualities and behavioral patterns of leaders that enable them to alter their perceptions of the world, and make the world a better place.
1. Northouse, Peter. Leadership: Theory and Practice. 7th ed. SAGE, 2015. (p. 53).
2. Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. Russian ed. Eksmo, 2008. (p. 177).
3. Quotes about Anger Management. Good Reads. Accessed January 20, 2016, at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/anger-management
4. Trouble quotes – page 2. Brainy Quote. Accessed January 20, 2016, at https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/troubles_2
5. Summarized from the technical note of Professor James G. Glawson. Leadership and intelligence. Darden Business Publishing, 2001. University of Virginia.