A leader’s influence echoes throughout an organization. That’s why it’s so crucial to recognize who has the traits of a true leader, who has the potential to become one, and when someone may be better suited for another role. That’s true for all fields — government, higher education, nonprofits, manufacturing, you name it. No matter the sector, a true leader must be able to determine an organization’s goals, craft the strategy for achieving them, and motivate others to accomplish the tasks that implement the strategy and realize the vision.
Of course, that description assumes that a leader heads up an entire organization. While that may be the case for some, leaders can be found at all levels — from entry-level staffers and middle management to temporary workers and seasoned veterans. The qualities of a true leader are valuable to the workings of any organization. For some, those qualities come naturally; for others, they must be cultivated. What matters is understanding the traits of a true leader, seeding those traits, and nurturing them so that both the individual and organization flourish.
What is a True Leader?
Simply put, a true leader leads by example, fostering strong relationships with individuals and teams alike and ensuring that all reach their full potential while, importantly, achieving organizational goals.
That definition establishes what leadership is and what success looks like, but we need to dig into the characteristics of a true leader to better understand how they produce those results.
The Qualities of a True Leader
The characteristics of a true leader shouldn’t be confused with leadership styles, which run the gamut from autocratic to charismatic and refer to how leaders, well, lead. It describes how they guide their teams and organizations, while characteristics of a true leader are often innate and relate to their personalities.
But, as we mentioned earlier, those traits can be fostered, so don’t fret if the list below doesn’t match what you believe your own leadership abilities or potential to be. You may grow into your own or find a career coach or mentor who can help you develop as a leader.
The list isn’t exhaustive, either. Rather, it identifies a handful of qualities widely shared by leaders in various disciplines — think about it as a way to assess your own traits, identify what needs nurturing, or use it when evaluating candidates for executive leadership positions.
Characteristics typically associated with a leader — smarts, toughness, determination — are important, as are hard skills like technical and analytical prowess, but emotional intelligence is especially key for true leaders.
The term was first coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in the mid-1990s after he studied 200 large, global companies and concluded that first-class leaders were distinguished by their emotional intelligence. Its primary elements include self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills, and Goleman found that leaders who exhibited those traits directly correlated with quantifiable business outcomes at their organizations. The leaders had a keen understanding of their effects on others, could control their impulses, and could relate well to others. This extended to both internal and external stakeholders, meaning colleagues and staff, as well as clients and customers.
Cultivating emotional intelligence isn’t something you necessarily practice with others, however, like active listening. It has a more inward focus, such as observing how you react to others and recognizing their needs and feelings.
So, know thyself, as the ancient Greeks said, and you’ll improve your emotional intelligence.
Another so-called soft skill, the ability to communicate effectively shouldn’t be minimized. It’s how true leaders rally others around their vision, persuade prospective business partners and job candidates to work with them, or convince the public of their organization’s value.
But it isn’t only about talking to others; communication is also about listening. True leaders seek to hear others without interrupting or judging what they have to say, negative or positive, in an effort to understand and respect where they’re coming from.
You can grow your own communication skills by meeting with coworkers and asking their opinions and suggestions. If you can follow through on their recommendations (assuming they’re within your purview), that will help them feel heard and appreciated. Be sure to make eye contact during the conversation and to ask clarifying questions to show you’re engaged and following what’s being said.
Accountable and Upstanding
We hinted at this above, but true leaders don’t just talk, they act — leading by example, in short.
That naturally involves doing but how leaders conduct themselves also matters — a lot — which leads us to accountability and integrity. Just as leaders expect coworkers and staff to take responsibility for their actions, so too do they hold themselves accountable for their commitments and actions. If they make a mistake, they own it and model ways of bouncing back. If there’s a hard task ahead, no matter how big or small, they roll up their sleeves and jump in to help. If a teammate has improved their skills or finished a particularly thorny project, a true leader applauds their work.
That accountability and decency from a true leader fosters a positive environment in which coworkers and staff feel they can rely on one another, are motivated to produce quality work, and support and recognize each other’s achievements.
Uplifts and Values Others
Related to the social skills usually paired with high emotional intelligence (or “EQ,” as it’s sometimes known), true leaders value relationships and take the time to get to know teammates, business partners, customers, and others on a personal level. They ask about their weekend, know their pets’ names, commiserate about recent mishaps in the kitchen — true leaders try to understand their coworkers’ whole selves, in other words, but also pick up on when some prefer to keep their private lives private. In turn, others begin to see the leader in a new light — more approachable, more human.
True leaders also seek to uplift others by helping them realize (and maybe exceed) their potential. This may involve establishing a tuition reimbursement policy at work, assigning tasks or projects that invite teammates to grow their skills and experience, or walking them through a new software program critical to the organization’s future.
Investing in others in such ways encourages reciprocity. Colleagues, employees, and customers become similarly invested in you and the organization you represent.
Courageous and Visionary
A true leader exhibits bravery and vision. Sometimes this involves making hard decisions and facing the criticism or backlash that follows, such as having to lay off staff for the greater health of the organization. At other times, courage means steering a team or organization in a new direction — pivoting, as is said in today’s business parlance.
One example is Wrigley. In the 1890s, salesman William Wrigley, Jr., handed out sticks of chewing gum to fuel purchases of the soap and baking powder he was hawking. The gum proved more popular than either, so he decided to make and sell it instead, going on to establish Juicy Fruit and Wrigley Spearmint gum.
A more recent example is Flickr, which began as Game Neverending, an online role-playing game. When its photo-sharing feature became more popular than the game, the makers decided to break it off altogether and call it Flickr. Yahoo! acquired it in 2005, and the rest is history.
True leaders face these business pivots and other challenges head on, with clear-eyed resolve.
Find Your Next Leader
The signs of a true leader don’t boil down to just the characteristics we’ve described, but they are some of the most important. Review them again and see how you, your executive team, or leadership candidates stack up. All of the traits can be nurtured, but you may also decide that a partner like Lindauer is another option. We help connect organizations in various industries to great leaders that drive mission impact.
Expand your search and tap into the extensive and unique networks that Lindauer offers to find the leader who meets your organization’s needs.
Written by Lindauer Vice President Faith Montgomery and Vice President Maureen Huminik.