Characteristics of a great leader

by Barry on September 6, 2010

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Who was the best leader you have ever worked for? What are the traits that made this this person a great leader, and what the characteristics that all great leaders share?

Below are the nine essential traits that a leader should possess. When going through this list, it does not matter if you are leading a team of three people, a department of 100, or an entire organization of thousands. While going through this list, ask yourself how do you rate?

1. Believe in a vision. Leaders must set a vision, and get people to believe in that vision. The vision is something that everyone should aspire to, in everything that they do. Find people who support the vision and who will help spread the word.

2. Excel in communicating. Leaders must be excellent in oral and written communications, and must know when to use which form. They must be adept at tailoring their message based on the audience, and breaking down communication barriers. Active listening and empathy are core components of leadership. Too many leaders are too busy talking and are not spending any real time truly listening.

3. Develop teamliness. For the organization to succeed, they must work together as a team. Everyone needs to do their piece, or there will be breakdowns. As a leader, you need to understand the needs of the team, especially any key decision makers. This may include direct contacts such as clients, employees and peers as well as indirect contacts such as vendors, industry experts, and the press.

As a leader, surround yourself with great lieutenants. It is important to build a team of can-do people who can provide you with the support that you need. If you have a team of naysayers, it is time to find a new team.

4. Be passionate. A leader inspires their team and gets people to change their behavior as a way to achieve the team’s desirable results. Passion is infectious. Your team will feel it and will emulate it. Be passionate about everything that you do.

5. Develop how you will measure success. Make sure that you have a clear understanding on what is required to succeed, and who are the key decision makers and influencers. Develop and share key performance indicators (KPIs) with your team so that they can be on the same page, and that they can develop KPIs within their groups that support your higher-level KPIs.

6. Demonstrate character. A leader needs to understand that they do not know everything and they should be constantly striving to learn.

A leader admits to their mistakes.  When you screw up (and you will!), it is essential to admit to mistakes and then to find solutions. Doing so builds trust and respect.

The leader must adapt their leadership style to the situation as different situations require different types of leaders and leadership styles.

7. Be customer focused. We must keep in mind who our “customers” are and then do everything possible to meet and exceed their expectations. If you lead an internal support organization, then your customer are other internal groups. For example, I’ve worked with many IT groups, both agency and client side, and the most successful of them go out of their way to treat their internal constituents as clients.

8. Possess a strong morale compass. A leader needs to operate with transparent integrity, at all costs. They must demand brutal honesty from their team and their vendors. This is non-negotiable.

9. React with stability. As a leader, being even keeled is critical.  It is important not to jump to conclusions when dealing with issues so that you make fact-based decisions, or when in the middle of a crisis, not to be too busy pointing blame instead of solving the actual problem and communicating with the outside world. Your team will emulate your behavior.

A few other things to consider:

It is about the soft skills. True leadership is really about people skills, and not the hard skills.  For example, no one will ever say that someone was a great leader because they “created amazing Excel pivot tables.”

Charisma can be an important aspect of leadership. Leaders with charisma have an easy time charming people to believe that they are strong leaders since they instantly gain the trust and respect of the people.  People feel very comfortable with charismatic leaders as they make everyone feel that they are the important person who the leader has spoken with.  People want to follow these leaders. However charisma is not a must have. Although having charisma is important, it does not mean that leaders without charisma will fail.

Remember that leadership is different from management. Although managers can (and should) provide leadership, not all leaders are managers. Managers focus on objects and position power.  Leaders focus on people and personal power.  Managers focus on organizing and staffing.  Leaders focus on creating shared culture and values.

So, how do you rate?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mat Zucker September 7, 2010 at 8:43 pm

These are great qualities and I think my first boss Dennis Ferrone at FCB was a great leader even though he was a group creative director vs the president or chief creative officer (neither of whom were all that great as leaders at least from the content here). What I’m always curious about is how much people are self-aware — do great leaders study to become them and how do they get feedback? So few get perf reviews and candid feedback regularly so how do they know when they’re going right/wrong? I’ve met plenty of awful leaders who are tone deaf and clueless to their own performance. Part of it is their own failure to ask or notice and part of it is lack of structure for them to actually get any feedback. Most people crave it.


Barry September 8, 2010 at 10:11 am

Mat, you raise a lot of good points. It is hard for many senior executives to really obtain valid feedback on their performance. Some organizations believe in 360 performance reviews (where you provide feedback on your boss) however these are not efficient as most people will not say anything negative about their boss because they are afraid of retribution. Other organizations believe in peer reviews for senior leaders, which can be very political. Some organizations bring in consultants to evaluate their leadership team. There are pros and cons to each and there is no one right answer since every situation is different.

There are many tremendous leaders out there across many organizations. These people are self-aware of their own capabilities, and by recognizing their strengths and weaknesses, they focus on finding people who excel in the areas that they are weak in to fill those gaps. These leaders tend to also invest in leadership training for themselves and their team, and read leadership magazines like Harvard Business Review (which is also one of my favorites).

As you pointed out, on the other side of the equation are the executives who are tone deaf. Many of these “leaders” excel in managing up but they have no idea how to manage down, so you end up in situations where their bosses believes that they are doing an amazing job but anyone in their organization knows that the opposite is true. I believe that you can only control things that are within your direct world. In these situations, you need to look at how these leaders are evaluated, as that is where their power derives from. Once you understand this, then you can align your behaviors with theirs.


Oster G. Bryan September 7, 2010 at 12:22 pm

This is an absolutely wonderful piece. I do have one question. Can you provide an example(s) of a successful leader who LACKED charisma?


Barry September 8, 2010 at 8:42 am

Thanks for the feedback. There are many leaders who lack charisma. Off the top of my mind, I would include George W. Bush, Bill Gates, Alan Greenspan, Margaret Thatcher, and Michael Bloomberg in that category.

Also take a look at the following links that go into greater detail about leaders without charisma.,9171,1909616-1,00.html


Allen Goldschmidt September 7, 2010 at 9:24 am

Great points Barry. Especially the difference between a manager and a leader. I’ve worked for many managers who aspire to be leaders, but don’t practice these traits. They’re always reacting to problems and putting out fires rather than leading the charge. They rely on their lieutenants to carry out their bidding without providing a structure from the top and then wonder why the same issues keep popping up. Keep up the good work.


Barry September 8, 2010 at 8:16 am

Thank you Allen. As you pointed out, unfortunately there are many aspiring leaders who as I put it, like to “manage by the crisis of the day”. There tends to be a lot of drama and emotion in these organizations as their leaders are so busy reacting to the latest crisis, and they don’t realize that it is their lack of vision and planning that causes the drama.


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