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Mike Figliuolo


Twelve Characteristics of Great Leaders

What’s their secret? There isn’t one.

Published: Tuesday, August 9, 2016 - 09:27

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ost of us are good leaders. Most of us aspire to be great leaders. Few are. What does it take to transcend “good” and become “great?” What’s the secret?

There isn’t one.

The differences between a good leader and a great one boil down to a handful of traits that inspire people to follow you and achieve outstanding results. Fortunately, all of them are skills you can build over time. In my experience, there are a dozen traits that are required before a leader can even hope to be great.

Building and demonstrating these traits doesn’t guarantee greatness, not by a long shot. But the absence of any one of these 12 traits will definitely hold you back from being great. In no particular order, here are some key leadership differentiators. Great leaders are:

Authentic. What you see is what you get. Great leaders share their hopes, fears, dreams, and failures. They truly care to know you as a person and want you to know them the same way. They strip away the façade and reveal their true selves to their team every day.

Visible. They’re known throughout the organization. They’ve built meaningful relationships with peers, subordinates, and superiors in seemingly every corner of the company. Their reputation precedes them in positive and powerful ways.

Influential. They can sway an audience with their words. They can make a case that’s clear and moves people to action. They’re able to explain not only what they want done but also why it’s beneficial for the listener to support their idea.

Memorable. Their stories inspire others. They make their actions memorable and the lessons they teach easily accessible. Everyone loves listening to their stories not only because they’re entertaining but also because they inform, inspire, and instruct.

Compelling. They demonstrate gravitas in groups large and small. People are drawn to them because they know how to connect with their audience. Combined with their ability to influence and be memorable, compelling leaders galvanize teams to action.

Efficient. They get stuff done. Fast. They’re mindful of how they manage their time as well as how they invest their energy in their team members. Their time investments are thoughtful. They invest based on where they’ll get the greatest results long term for the time they put in.

Innovative. They see solutions that aren’t obvious. They challenge existing ways of thinking and generate new ideas on a regular basis. They think big and push the organization beyond what it believes its limitations are.

Strategic. The future is something they think about frequently. They consider possible scenarios, plan for them, and generate approaches for winning in the markets of tomorrow. The choices they make are mindful of the possible actions of others in the market.

Thoughtful. When faced with a problem or a challenge, they stop and think before acting. They have the ability to break big problems into smaller ones, understand true root causes, and generate solutions that solve the real issue at hand.

Decisive. Once they’re done thinking and they’ve considered the options, they swing into action. Although they may not have all the information, they have enough to move forward. They’re able to balance judgment with risk and are willing to take calculated chances to have an impact on the organization.

Fair. When they’re negotiating, they don’t focus on winning for themselves. Instead, they focus on winning for everyone. They understand that many negotiations are more about the long-term relationship than they are about saving a buck in an individual interaction. They’re able to prioritize fairness over profit. Whether the negotiation is with a team member who wants a day off or a supplier selling a multimillion-dollar contract, these leaders strike deals that everyone finds acceptable.

Resilient. There’s no shortage of challenges and failures for leaders to face. The great ones know how to pick themselves up when they’ve been knocked down. They carry on. They dust themselves off and summon strength from deep within to carry on the fight.

If you know you need to build any of these skills, find other leaders who already have them and see how you can learn from them. The sooner you improve your skills in these areas, the faster you’ll become the leader you’re capable of being.

Do those 12 characteristics guarantee that a leader will be great? Of course not. But they’re a great start. Being deficient in any of them will hold you back from being the best leader you can be. I believe this so firmly that I’ve put together a two-day learning event focused on helping leaders build these skills. On Nov. 10–11, 2016, I’ll be hosting Executive Insight 16 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. It’s 13 sessions focused on practical, pragmatic approaches to building these critical leadership traits, delivered by experienced executives on the thoughtLEADERS team. I’d love to have you join us. If you register by Sept. 8, 2016, you’ll save up to $300 on the registration fee.

Mike Figliuolo will be talking more about this on Quality Digest Live, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, at 11 a.m. Pacific/2 p.m. Eastern.


About The Author

Mike Figliuolo’s picture

Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch (Weiser, 2016) and One Piece of Paper (Jossey-Bass, 2011), and co-author of Lead Inside the Box (Weiser, 2015). He’s also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC, a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.


Trust but Verify

I'd add Trusting to the list. Not naive trust, but one arising from effective delegation and development of the organization. I have never found a micro-manager to be a great leader. Nor a great manager.