In an organizational structure, the word “leadership” is often used very loosely. A good manager or team lead isn’t necessarily a born leader, and there is a fine line between executive presence and leadership. Executive presence relates to an individual’s command, presence, confidence, subject-matter expertise, and technical competency. An exceptional leader, on the other hand, is someone who inspires others to be their best, has great character, and helps build the same in everyone else. A leader isn’t driven by job title but by company goals and vision. As Donald H. McGannon, who was president of both the Westinghouse Broadcasting Corporation and the National Urban League, said, “Leadership is action, not position.”

So what is leadership character, and how do we build it? The dictionary definition of character is “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” Notice that the definition didn’t talk about technical skills. It instead focuses on the ethical qualities that can provide guidance and a sense of direction when things don’t look so promising. Whether heading a team, a department, a company, or, on a larger scale, a country, leaders share some key attributes. The principal traits of leadership—integrity, shared vision, emotional intelligence, positive outlook, authenticity, confidence, forward focus, and listening ability—converge at the core as character.

Integrity. Integrity is the single most important trait for building character. It’s the tone at the top that is paramount in an organization. In the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer global survey, which included 33,000 respondents around the world, only 27% of leaders were seen as behaving in open and transparent ways. In the 2013 report of the same population, 82% of workers around the world reported that they didn’t trust their bosses to tell the truth. In “An Exploratory Study of Employee Silence: Issues that Employees Don’t Communicate Upward and Why,” a study by the Institute for Public Relations, 85% of employees admitted to withholding from their bosses concerns about critical issues. The data is disturbing. In order to strengthen trust and encourage loyalty from their teams, leaders need to lead with integrity and work toward an atmosphere of transparency.

Shared vision. Managing people is an art. If there’s no buy-in to the vision, the team won’t be inspired. The vision should be such that it helps strengthen the team. While pleasing everyone isn’t possible, an objective that has been considered carefully for the benefit of the majority is easier to develop.

Emotional intelligence. Nothing compares to keen emotional intelligence. Its importance can’t be overemphasized in leading a team. People face many biases, regardless of their gender or race. That mostly happens due to our social conditioning. Emotional intelligence helps us appreciate the unique abilities and differences that people have and connect with them more easily. That ultimately helps make organizations more inclusive and diverse. Leaders need to foster an environment of cultural sensitivity and global outlook to make change happen.

In its research with a random sample of 3,871 executives selected from a database of more than 20,000 executives worldwide, consulting firm Hay/McBer identified six distinct leadership styles, each springing from different components of emotional intelligence. Their findings indicated that each style seems to have a direct and unique impact on the overall business environment, which in turn can affect the bottom line in a positive way.

For example, Pepsi found that executives with high emotional intelligence, or EQ, generated 10% more productivity, had 87% less turnover, brought $3.75 million more value to the company, and increased ROI by 1,000%. L’Oréal found that salespeople with a high EQ sold $2.5 million more than others. And when Sheraton decided to incorporate an EQ initiative, its market share grew by 24%.

Positive outlook. During tough times, a leader’s positive outlook helps rebuild dissipating confidence. You may have seen this in a professional sporting event. When it seems that a team may lose, the coach steps in to help boost players’ confidence and encourages the team to keep up the fight. That positivity is contagious, and the coach’s role is instrumental in keeping the energy alive. A consistently positive, optimistic, and encouraging culture can teach people that there’s a better way to be in the world.

Authenticity. Among the leadership styles that a business professional can choose to employ, an authentic approach holds considerable power. As part of the modern management science, authentic leadership has found high levels of acceptance since the publication of Bill George’s 2003 book, Authentic Leadership. A key tenet in George’s model is that company leaders are focused on long-term shareholder value, not just in beating quarterly estimates. That helps to foster a nurturing environment and to build long-lasting commitment and loyalty.

Confidence. We all have fears. People often fear rejection more than they fear failure. Fear of failure is in some ways quite a positive thing. Fear can motivate people to take strategic steps to fix what might break. It helps us look inward. That said, fear of rejection can make us lose control of our vision. Leaders don’t fear rejection. To become a good leader, learn to feel confident in your abilities, and don’t judge yourself through someone else’s lens. There is power in originality and authenticity.

Forward focus. Influential leaders are optimistic about the future, and, though it may sound counterintuitive to some, leaders speak in the present or future tense. SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk is famous for discussing his company vision in the future tense. Leaders rarely wallow in the past. Language stuck in the past demonstrates inflexibility and an inability to refocus and adjust on a case-by-case basis.

Listening ability. A common complaint about executive leadership is the failure to listen to others’ voices. Leadership is a two-way street. In order to lead effectively, one must listen, communicate, persuade, and collaborate. As General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said, “Ideas do not have a hierarchy. Good ideas can come from anywhere.” We all have the power to influence and lead.


The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at

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