What are the qualities of a good leader? Is there a fail-safe do-this formula to follow and you will become a good leader? Studying leaders and leadership in all walks of life reveals some essential qualities that leaders exhibit.
People always demand an abundance of qualities in their leaders. If we study leaders and leadership, we can see that leaders do not always follow a standard recipe. There is no fail-safe do-this and you will become a great leader formula, but when we can identify qualities in other leaders, we can develop ourselves.
A good leader knows what and whom s/he is leading, for what purpose and what are the desired outcomes and has the guts, motivation and skills to personally commit and make people go for it.
Essential Qualities of a Good Leader
- Self-management – A good leader knows their good and bad qualities and can first lead him/herself towards excellence before s/he can make other follow the leadership. Personal leadership means an ability to take charge, first of oneself, then situations and then others.
- Confidence – All leaders believe in themselves and their causes. This belief is rock-solid and very contagious so that others see this as trustworthiness. A good leader needs to build up hope. "A leader is a dealer in hope." - Napoleon Bonaparte
- Communication skills – The leader should be able to listen, question, observe and analyze. All good leaders are good at getting their message across in a form that everyone understands. The leader should be able to convey a vision to motivate people, inspire them to sometimes make sacrifices and strive for improvement and this must be aligned to the people’s hopes and expectations.
- Knowledge – Usually a leader knows much about the field and displays the skills to produce solutions, which are valued in the situation.
- Vision – A good leader has a good grasp of history, the current situation and can project a version of history that is meaningful and desirable for the followers. The leaders vision and actions must meet the needs of the followers at some level.
- Integrity – A leader earns respect. Followers must see that the leader has excellent skills, lives according to the benchmarks s/he has set and respect is mutual. The leader has to exhibit social awareness, build bonds and manage conflicts.
The requirement of leadership qualities mix changes over time. At the early phase of the leadership, the focus is on building trust and inspiring confidence and “selling the vision”. Personal example is very crucial at this stage. Whether the leadership style is authoritarian, participative, delegative, inspirational or empowering, a leader is a change agent, who can feel the pulse of the moment.
At later stages, interim results become important. People need tangible evidence that their trust has not been misplaced. Followers are even prepared to overlook deficiencies in their leader and explain to themselves why they can live with this anomaly. Strategic leadership qualities and positioning oneself accurately is very important so that the leader is seen as a leader. Sometimes it also means taking risks of being unpopular. Good leaders also know that leadership is not a popularity contest and sometimes they have to be very lonely, especially in facing opposition and overcoming fear of change.
How to Evaluate Leadership
If we are talking about situational and goal-directed leadership like a team-leader or a CEO, who need to produce measurable outcomes and whose "leadership" can be measured in stock value growth, it is easy to create measuring tools. Usually, but not always, the measuring devices are based on the competition model, i.e. how you manage to beat or exclude others.
But if we are talking about spiritual or moral leadership, the benchmarking gets extremely difficult. How do we measure the efficiency of Moses, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader? Gandhi, Thoreau or Tolstoy who are through their writings, potent sources of inspiration for improving lives and building a better world (lofty aspirations), may not have been good leaders in other contexts. For inspirational leaders, the focus is on bringing in something new, a vision, which did not exist earlier. If we are to measure inspirational leadership with the yardstick of "good" we are in trouble. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran was an inspirational leader with an immense following like Lenin of Russia. But do we still say that they did bring "good" to their people?
We have the luxury of saying now that Hitler was "bad", but I know many older Germans who have told me that in the early days he was seen as a saviour, who created employment, made trains run on time and stood up to foreign oppressors of Germany.
One Vital Fault in Leaders
“Good" leaders often lack one vital quality. Fidel Castro and Mao Tse Tung were good leaders in their settings, but they should have handed over decades ago but didn't. A good leader should know when their task is over and they should move on after handing the baton over. Two examples of those who did relinquish power come to mind - Cincinnatus of ancient Rome (519-438 BC) and Jorma Ollila, the former CEO of Nokia (1992-2006).
Charismatic leaders are sometimes bullies. Here's an article with advice on how to deal with a bully at your work.
Excellent leadership examples in everyday life too
Typically we study presidents, generals and company CEOs as leaders. Why? We just need to look around to see regularly incompetent people get promoted and earn multi million dollar bonuses, while genuine and valuable input is overlooked. The world is full of unsung heroes and heroines. The single mother without an ivy league education, who works hard and raises her children well and takes care of her own aged parents also probably has much more leadership skills than celebrity CEOs and politicians.