Leadership is one of the most researched and written-about topics in professional development advice. Yet it’s also true that we get a variety of responses when we ask others to define leadership or to list the attributes of an effective leader. Like so many other concepts, a person’s perspective on what makes a good leader often depends on their own personal values and experiences more than a universally shared definition or understanding of ideal leadership characteristics. That said, there are essential attributes that contribute to effective leadership. Highly effective leaders display strong character, are purpose-driven, are results-oriented, and have a strong sense of situational awareness.


Having Strong Character


Professionals demand integrity in a leader. Integrity is often used interchangeably with honesty but comes more directly from the Latin word integer, which means whole or complete. To have integrity involves ensuring your actions are in line with your words and not saying one thing but doing another. In essence, it means that leaders are authentic, know who they are, stay true to that, and make sure their actions are consistent with their words.  


This is where another important aspect of character, courage, is frequently revealed. Some think of courage as a rare virtue of heroes, e.g., something that soldiers or first responders display when risking their lives. While these types of situations are indeed exceptional illustrations of courage, effective leaders understand that they need courage every day while multitasking, delegating tasks, resolving conflicts, having difficult conversations with team members, making decisions, or taking action.


Being a respected leader who consistently sets the right example and positively motivates others requires courage, which is a critical aspect of a leader’s character. Taking responsibility and being accountable for one’s actions also require courage. As the renowned author C.S. Lewis stated, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”


Other important pillars of character include trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. All of those must be cultivated in oneself, demonstrated on a daily basis, and earned to be considered a good leader in others’ estimation.


Being Purpose-Driven


Much has been written about the servant leadership style of prioritizing, serving the greater good and putting a team, organization, and other stakeholders first. Serving others should be much more than a nice-to-have leadership attribute. Instead, it’s inherent to the definition of every form of leadership. The desire to serve others in the pursuit of a higher purpose is much more than a particular style of leadership but rather an imperative for all leaders.


So how does a leader begin to serve and inspire others? Leaders need to be able to articulate a shared vision and organizational mission in a compelling way. In this regard, strong communication skills play an important role. In practice, people often equate communication skills with the ability to be a persuasive orator. However, poor leaders often shortchange other essential aspects of communication such as writing and listening. When leaders listen, they stand to benefit not only from what they may learn but also by making others feel valued and appreciated. There are few better ways to begin helping, managing, and influencing others than to attentively listen to their concerns.


The best purpose-driven leaders embody the organization’s purpose and mission, communicate openly and regularly about them, and make decisions through an ethical lens while taking sustainable business management and the organizational purpose and mission into account. They take care to balance the interests of all stakeholders.


Being Results-Oriented


Good leaders get things done. To be effective, leaders need to develop confidence and garner the trust of their followers. A key component of gaining the trust of others is displaying competence and good judgment. The bottom line is that results matter, and leaders must be able to show progress in fulfilling their mandate or the confidence of their colleagues will erode over time.


The competence of a leader depends heavily on their skill in influencing followers to support a worthy cause and executing their organization’s mission regardless of external perceptions or actions. Maintaining the confidence to act competently and decisively is dependent on developing a keen sense of self-awareness that helps leaders recognize their own strengths and limitations as well as those of their team members.


It’s important for leaders to set clear expectations and goals, track the team’s progress toward achieving them, and hold themselves and their direct reports accountable to their organization’s mission and those they serve. Finally, strong leaders do a postmortem, analyzing results and highlighting successes, areas for improvement, and lessons learned.


Having Situational Awareness


Beyond possessing the valued characteristic of self-awareness, a leader should also strive to understand the environment in which they operate. Effective leaders appreciate the significance of considering multiple perspectives and how external factors can influence possibilities, occurrences, and actions.


“I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself” were the sage words of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, reminding us that we’re all products of our circumstances. Historically, we most often tend to remember the leaders who led during tumultuous times, whose circumstances called for extraordinary leadership and who rose to the occasion. Consequently, leaders need to recognize that they aren’t only influenced by circumstances but have a duty to analyze the nuances of those circumstances and step up to meet the challenges they present.


In other words, it isn’t enough to understand our situation and that of our team members; we must not allow ourselves or our direct reports to feel powerless. Fulfilling the duty to meet the challenge of our circumstances is facilitated by having integrity and grit, as well as becoming a thoughtful student of history. It’s helpful to study the prior successes and failures of other leaders in similar situations.


While it’s tempting to think our circumstances are completely unique, it’s often the case that others have encountered similar or worse situations that can provide us with valuable lessons. Jim Collins, noted author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, wrote that modeling the highest form of leadership means having a strong sense of humility and not seeking to glorify one’s own ego or status. Instead, highly effective leaders are constantly aspiring to learn and grow. Knowing when to seek outside advice is indispensable.


While the term leadership may mean different things to different people, the ability of leaders to inspire and influence people is often a derivative of their strong character, their commitment to a higher purpose, their ability to get things done, and their ability to not only adapt to but also overcome their circumstances. Are you up to the challenge?

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