9 Non-Negotiable Leadership Traits

Recently, I have been working with a number of individuals new to leadership. It has been fascinating to watch the behaviors they believe demonstrate leadership. It is alarming and unsettling – and their teams are equally curious about how they should respond to their approaches.

Though there have been thousands of articles, books, and blogs written about ‘leadership’, I felt compelled to share what I consider to be the 9 non-negotiable traits for one to become a leader one would want to follow.  Now, before you read further and lest you think I am living in a naive nirvana, we all know we have followed those that may only have ONE of these qualities. Yet, we also know that not all leaders are real leaders….they have positional power, or have achieved a ‘monetary level’ or achieved a ‘title’ which folks admire…..yet that does NOT mean they are leaders. What it does mean – more times than not – is that they were (or are) at the right place at the right time, and took full advantage of the opportunity. Yet, we also know that monetary or title achievement does NOT equate to leadership. One last comment  before we move on, the traits highlighted below are NOT the ONLY traits we desire and need in a strong leader; yet, they are the ones (in no particular order) which I consider to be ‘tickets to entry’ for folks, aspiring to be leaders, need to embrace.

  1. Visionary. Leaders need to outline a vision for themselves, and more importantly for their teams. Where are we going? What is the ‘end game’? What are the key goals we need to pursue to get there? Visionary leaders have passion and a strength of will to achieve long-term goals. They see beyond the challenges, and often the ambiguity, of today to build a compelling and clear picture for tomorrow. It takes discipline to hold that vision despite the distractions of the day. They tap into their teams’ emotions and inspire them to pull the very best from their teams. They are resolute – they do not ‘cave’ when the going gets tough. In fact, setbacks are catalysts to them. They reach deep and assure others that they CAN and WILL ‘get there’.
  2. Disciplined. Having a vision must be fueled by work ethic and daily attention to what matters. As mentioned in point #1, setbacks are not paralyzing. instead they offer perspective and a stopping point to re-calculate approaches and re-vamp their commitment.  They boost and reassure people – by their actions – when facing setbacks and even possible re-direction. They lead by setting the example and embracing high standards. They are simply not willing to ‘settle’.
  3. Ego in check. In a nutshell, great leaders build power, yet it is never about power OVER others. Effective leaders give away power and EMPOWER others. Great leaders live to be in service to others. They focus on the needs and wants of their team….and not just to get what they want. They are genuine and sincere in their commitment to help others reach their potential for THEIR sake – not for the sake of the leader.  Sure, leaders embrace an inner confidence YET have tremendous humility. Net: their leadership is simply not about them.
  4. Generous.  Leaders are generous with their time, their ideas, sharing of credit, and sharing of the limelight. They are generous with praise and encouragement. This is not to be confused with ‘pat phrases’ or empty praise….this is authentic, specific, and measured feedback. Followers strive to get feedback like this from leaders they respect…..as it means something!
  5. Integrity. This word (and trait) has to be one of the most abused and battered terms and traits when describing leadership. Many of us have worked for leaders who hide behind their religious convictions and tout their beliefs, only to be two-faced, and sharing ‘half truths’ under the auspices of honesty. It is in short: hypocrisy on steroids. Net: this is not integrity. Integrity is treating everyone with the same level of respect. No favorites. No cliques. Trust has been earned – as the followers KNOW and BELIEVE he/she is who they say they are….because their actions are in alignment with their words. They have the courage to stand behind their convictions regardless of the consequences. These leaders are quite frankly rare – yet, when we have the gift of working alongside one – we would walk on fiery coals for them.
  6. Self Awareness. Strong leaders are always seeking growth; and they realize that wisdom most often comes from within. They seek becoming self-aware. What make them tick? What sets them off? What are they to learn from an experience? They spend time reflecting. They spend time meditating. They journal. They are life long learners….and not of just ‘skills’. They seek to learn where they are strong and where they have room to improve. It is a quiet quality where leaders look in the mirror – honestly and constructively – to grow as human beings and as leaders. This quality if often underrated; yet, I believe it is one of the most critical for the new age of transformational leadership.
  7. Intuitive. As an INFJ on the MyersBriggs assessment, intuition is a basis by which I make meaning  – and make decisions – in the world. Yet, the mention of intuition in this article, is distinctive. Intuitive leaders grasp that long-term vision and they are able to chart the path. They have an evolved way of looking at the world, and ask provocative questions to challenge the status quo. How can we be different? How can we serve our employees and/or our constituents in a more enlightened manner? They approach the solutions creatively and by doing so they elevate and evolve their businesses and teams to greater levels of fulfillment and overall success.
  8. Communicator. Strong leaders are not afraid to say what they need to say. They share early, openly, and often. Yet, they always ALIGN their message to the overall ‘end game’  – so that what they are sharing or suggesting has a firm foundation as to ‘why’ the decisions are what they are.
  9. Agility and Flexibility in Approach. Being agile as a leader simply means the ability to take action (and make decisions) in complex, rapidly changing circumstances. Entire books and HBR articles have been written about agile leadership and cultures; thus, I will not try to boil the ocean in this article. What I will say is that agile leaders are able to innovate and think creatively  – and challenge the status quo. They persevere through challenges and obstacles – and are able to encourage the same from their teams. They reflect on where they have been, where they are, and where they are going. They seek feedback – early and often. And they take calculated risks – with approaches and people – and stretch themselves in a continuous cycle of leadership.

As we grow as leaders, and also inspire and encourage budding leaders within our organizations, identifying qualities which we want to build and embrace is Step One. Then, we can develop a thoughtful and well intended leadership development effort for ourselves, and to encourage, teach, and empower these traits and approaches within our teams.

What do you think? Have you worked for ‘leaders’ who were really just high performing individual contributors? Have you worked for individuals who had (or have) a false sense of their leadership capabilities due to their rank and/or position? What traits do you most value in the leaders with whom you work? Weigh in….we value your input and insights.