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The qualities of a leader

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Leadership is difficult to define. We often know what it is and what it isn’t but we find it difficult to describe and define. It gets blurred with management, blended with psychology and often delegated to the HR professional who now has the misfortune of wrestling with this difficult subject. How can anyone be expected to develop leaders if you can’t define what leadership means or what the good qualities of a leader might be?

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I will attempt to provide some clarity that helps define leadership and the qualities of a good leader. This is not meant to be definitive, it’s designed to help stimulate your thinking and help you to define what great leadership looks like for you and your organisation.

Firstly, leadership is not about titles, executive perks or positions of authority. There are plenty of terrible leaders who have held positions of leadership but few people willingly follow them. They might follow out of fear but that’s a form of intimidation and bullying – not leadership. Examples might include Stalin, Hitler and other dictators of the 20th Century.

Leaders are defined by whether or not people are willing to follow them. Do they inspire them? Do they respect them? Are they guided by their ethical values? These questions speak to the heart – how someone feels about another person. Examples might include Mandela, Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

How do you behave in a way that makes people want to follow you?

I believe that leadership is all about your behaviour. You lead by the example you set, it is up to you whether it’s a good one or not. Leadership sets the tone for your organisation’s culture in the same way that parents might set the tone for the culture of the home. If your leaders lose their temper and shout at their team members, they make it culturally acceptable for others to do so. What you say counts but, it’s what you do and how you make people feel that makes them want to follow you.

So the question becomes, how do you lead by example? How do you set the behavioural standards for your organisation? The following are some questions designed to help you think about the qualities of a leader.

Competence – It is hard to lead if you don’t know what you are doing. You don’t need to know it in as much depth as your people but you need to be competent. This isn’t usually an issue as most people are promoted to leadership positions based on competence.

But how are you improving? How are you getting better at what you do? Do you simply work longer hours to get more done or do you learn to effectively delegate to the point of discomfort to develop your people and create the space for you to lead? Leaders have to be dissatisfied with the status quo. They have to want to improve themselves, their team and the situation they find themselves in. Are you developing yourself purely by gathering experience (reactive) or are you proactively managing your own development and self-improvement process?

Clarity – do you create clarity? Does your team have a clear purpose, a customer who benefits from whatever you do and a vision? These are often unclear. If you don’t have these, people cannot tell how they contribute to the success of the organisation. How do they know what to focus on if they don’t have a clear vision for what they are working towards? Are these elements well communicated or did you define them once and never speak about them again? Do you have behavioural standards for how people are expected to behave? Do you create positive and negative consequences around these?

People – Leaders deliver their plans through their people. How well do you know them? Do you know about their family situations and what they want out of life in the long-term? This is vital information in creating that social contract with people that allows you to influence them. Do you develop them, challenging and supporting them as necessary to improve their performance?

Behaviour – No one comes to work to make mistakes and get things wrong. Stuff just happens. How do you react when people make mistakes? If you chastise them, you kill their appetite to innovate and try different things. You create an environment where decision-making and risks are avoided as people play it safe to try and avoid being reprimanded when it goes wrong. Do you demonstrate humility and admit that you don’t know everything?

Hopefully these questions and points will get you to think about leadership. Reflect on them – ask your team for feedback based on these. Challenge yourself everyday with the question, ‘Would I want to be led by me?’ and you’ll find the path to great leadership becomes clear.


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