Learning the right leadership characteristics is a lifetime journey, and it starts by deciding you want to become a leader. There are many important qualities to great leadership, and each one requires a commitment to learning and behavior change. Just when you think you're getting close, it's time to revisit the skills you thought you'd mastered. So where do you start?


leadership characteristics


There are many outstanding leadership experts, each of whom describes many critical leadership traits across the spectrum of strategic thinking, execution, and people management. You can't go wrong if you start by reading the classics by Marshall Goldsmith, Warren Bennis, John Maxwell, and Jim Kouzos.

But which of the many leadership characteristics should you work on first? The best way to answer this question is through feedback and self-assessment. What do people you work with think and say about you - your strengths and your weaknesses as a leader? The best way to get this is through a 360 review - getting a third party to gather feedback from your boss, peers, and direct reports. If you're self-aware, you can also distill much of this information from your many professional interactions. When in doubt, ask your spouse or your best friend.

If the list of opportunities for improvement is still a long one, it's time for self-assessment. Which leadership skills do you want to work on first? Recognizing how hard it is to change behavior, Marshall Goldsmith suggests picking one personal trait to improve at a time. He also suggests finding a friend or colleague as a personal coach to hold you accountable on a regular basis as you adopt new behaviors. It's all about personal action. You can't think your way to better acting, but you can act your way to better thinking.

If I had to choose four leadership characteristics that are critical for every leader, I would suggest these: communicate the vision, know yourself, challenge the process, and build trust.

  1. Communicate the vision. The world is changing so fast that vision is more important than ever. A clear, three-year vision creates alignment, prioritizes the actions we need to take now to reach our three-year goals, and motivates all employees with a greater sense of purpose. But it's the leader's job to make sure there's a vision that's clear and well understood. No one else has the authority and bully pulpit to deliver the vision that every organization needs. 
  2. Know yourself. No one is in a better position to lead by example than the highly visible leader. So what example are you setting? To know this you need to know yourself. Do you embody the values of the culture? Do your actions at the moments of truth convey high integrity? Are you surrounding yourself with a team that complements - that is, shores up - your weaknesses? You don't find out through on-the-job training. Make sure you know yourself before you sign up to be the leader.
  3. Challenge the process. Any organization that's satisfied with the status quo is likely to disappear. The person best equipped to challenge the status quo - and to create room for others to do the same - is the leader.
  4. Build trust. Trust is the critical foundation of high-performance teams. This has long been the message from Patrick Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team. And to build trust, the leader needs to go first. That means setting the tone of vulnerability - a key ingredient in relationship building - by being vulnerable first.

Working on these four traits will keep any of us busy for a while. And how will you know when you've become a leader? Leaders have followers. Is anyone following you? 

Dave Power, an NCMM contributor and president of Power Strategy, has guided growth companies as an operating executive, board member, and advisor for over 25 years. Dave was CEO of Novera Software, SVP Marketing of RSA Security, and a venture capital investor with Fidelity Ventures. He is a Certified Gazelles International Coach and teaches innovation and strategic management courses at the Harvard Extension School. Dave earned an MBA at Stanford Business School.