9 Characteristics of Great Leaders

In real life, we have ample illustrations of what leadership is not. What makes the trying times we live in even more trying is that leadership is in short supply, both in society and in the executive suite. The ones who like to call themselves “leaders” are often beholden to the “wrong” people. That, or they’re not leading so much as they’re gaming a system that’s been in place for years. A system that easily played is ripe for reform (but that’s a subject for another column).

If we know what leadership isn’t, we ought to know what leadership is…shouldn’t we? Or, are we in a similar dilemma as the late justice Potter Stewart when he said about obscenity, “I’ll know it when I see it.” If we felt that way about leadership, that would suggest we don’t have much of a frame of reference. It’s possible we haven’t seen or experienced leadership enough to know what it’s supposed to be.

"I'll know it when I see it." - Justice Potter Stewart, 1976 portrait (Wikimedia Commons)

Maybe we’d recognize leadership if we saw it, and maybe we wouldn’t. Maybe the era of leadership is over. What do you think? For many of us, leaders are those who’ve stood the test of time. (Then again, a lot of our one-time heroes and leaders have been found to have feet of clay — for example, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both had slaves, though they’ve stood for freedom for over two centuries.)

Quick, off the top of your heads. Who symbolizes leadership? Are or were they heads of state? Military leaders? Corporate executives — CEOs, CFOs, or CTOs?

What characteristics do — or did — they exhibit? What did they do (or have they done) to make you think, “There’s someone I’d follow”?

What do all of these people have in common? Another excellent question is “Did they fall short in some areas?” Were they missing crucial qualities, or were there things they didn’t accomplish that they should have?

What qualities do great leaders share?

  1. Willingness to take responsibility for failure. Eddie Robinson, the legendary football coach of Grambling U., said to his players — probably on more than one occasion — “You did not lose because you’re not good football players. You lost because I did not prepare you well enough.”
  2. A desire to keep learning. If you can’t admit to occasional failure — and no one’s perfect — you have no basis in your own mind for improvement. To put it another way, if you haven’t failed at something, you haven’t tried anything.
  3. The ability — and willingness — to make decisions with incomplete information. Some of us, myself included, don’t want to make a move until we have all the facts and are absolutely certain. By waiting for the perfect moment to act,  we let a lot of pretty good opportunities get by us.
  4. Humility. Leaders are not so full of themselves that they won’t call on the people they lead for advice. They know they can never have all the answers and their ideas are not necessarily the best, or even good. They continually involve their people.
  5. Grace under pressure. Anyone can call themselves a leader when everything’s in their favor but when they’re in dire straits, how do they behave? Leaders never expect perfection all the time; they aim for perfection but they also anticipate and rehearse worst-case scenarios. (A certain cruise ship captain comes to mind here.)
  6. They have a master plan and an alternative, or back-up, plan. “Plan for the best but anticipate the worst” should the master plan not work as intended)
  7. Self-sacrifice and discipline. Leaders take care of their people first and take care of their own needs last.
  8. Giving their charges the resources they need to do their job well. If you’re not supplying your employees with the basics — which now often includes smartphones and tablets as well as a landline, internet connection, and office supplies — you can’t expect them to meet the customer’s requirements, let alone your own. And don’t overlook education and training! The rules of business and war are always changing — at the very least, you’re going to have to keep up. Preferably, you’re going to stay ahead of the curve.
  9. Trust. Leaders ensure that their followers are adequately resourced, trained, knowledgeable, and committed. That way, their expectations are not unrealistic. Leaders set goals they’re sure can be met with talent, work, and dedication — SMART goals.

Eddie Robinson, Grambling head coach, 1941-1997

Now, I ask for your thoughts. Do we have a shortage of leaders? Can leaders be made or do we have to wait for them to be born?

I look forward to hearing from you.


We help small businesses improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Whether you're selling a product or a service, we'll show you how you can improve product and service quality, effectively and affordably. If you need quality, environmental, or health & safety management but can't afford a full-time manager or staff, call on Q9C and we'll pick up the slack. For information or a quote, call or write. Subscribe to the Q9C blog while you're at it.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Leadership

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: