12 essential qualities of a great leader: how to better your leadership skills

When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963, he inspired legions of followers to take part in nonviolent protests.

His speech ultimately helped to achieve equal rights for Black Americans. The moment is one of the greatest examples of leadership. 

What did King have that many other leaders lack? 

Great leaders often have qualities that determine whether they can inspire, motivate, persuade and lead with integrity. 

These skills include empathy for connecting with those they lead and communication skills for expressing themselves effectively. Great leaders also recognize that there’s always room for growth. 

Let’s look at 12 essential attributes to help you boost your skills and become a great leader. 

What are good leadership qualities? 12 essential attributes of great leaders 

If you want to become the best leader possible, consider how you can learn from these 12 essential attributes. 

Whether it’s self-awareness, good communication skills or the ability to influence or uphold integrity, these are some essential leadership qualities:

1. Self-awareness

There’s no such thing as the perfect leader. And anyone who thinks they’re perfect probably lacks a degree of self-awareness. 

Good self-awareness means recognizing where you’re doing well, where you can improve and where you excel for the best results. 

Self-awareness helps you understand how your actions and words impact others—an essential skill for all leaders if they want to motivate and influence. 

2. Respect for others 

Great leaders don’t push their beliefs on others, nor do they see their team members as just another number. 

Instead, they respect their team members, understand that other opinions matter and acknowledge their team has people with unique feelings, wants and needs. 

Leaders who respect others are intent on treating others how they want others to treat them. They also respect others' time, viewpoints and differences, which can all boost work culture and employee enjoyment. 

3. Effective communication

Communication is one of the hallmarks of outstanding leadership. To lead your team effectively, you must be able to clearly explain your vision and how you’ll get there together.

Some core elements of effective communication include:

Active listening

Pay attention to the speaker and offer relevant responses and nonverbals to show you’re listening and understanding. That could include repeating what they’ve said or nodding. 

Brevity

Overexplaining can lead to confusion and frustration. Being concise helps people understand the most essential points and act accordingly. 

Confidence

Confidence can reassure your team that you’re reliable. While you don’t need to be a perfect public speaker, you must have the confidence to lead and support your team. 

Conflict resolution

Teams will always have many opinions, increasing the potential for conflict. As the leader, it’s your role to actively listen to your team members, provide advice and resolve any conflicts.

4. Empathy 

While you might disagree with someone, a core leadership skill is empathizing with others’ feelings and viewpoints. 

Empathy involves compassion for others, putting yourself in their shoes and considering their circumstances before making assumptions. 

Practicing empathy can lead to meaningful connections, more engaged teams and trust between you and those you lead. 

5. Vision

In an organization, there’s no action without goals or a vision. As a leader, you need a clear vision to communicate effectively to your team. This will ensure you can rally everyone to work toward that vision. 

Good leaders know where they’re heading in the short term. They also understand that true growth and success come from knowing the team’s long-term goals and path. 

6. Learning agility

Learning agility means continually seeking opportunities to learn, grow and improve your craft. 

One key factor that separates average leaders from the best leaders is their keenness to continually learn. Great leaders know they aren’t (and never will be) perfect and recognize there’s always room for growth. 

Adopting a learning agility approach to improving your skills can be helpful. This will keep you on the cutting edge of leadership and help your team members feel confidently led, empowered and motivated. 

7. Resilience

All leaders will naturally face challenging situations, whether it’s a project failure, having to mediate a difficult discussion, or even laying off employees. 

A great leader understands that challenging situations are part of the role and that practicing resilience can help to move through these times. 

Resilience doesn’t mean that stressful times don’t bother you; it means that you’re: 

  • adaptable to change, 
  • curious to see what you can learn from challenges, 
  • willing to work through difficult times to find solutions and
  • comfortable with stress management

8. Integrity 

One of your team members asks for help. They’re overwhelmed by their workload and hope you’ll address it. You listen to their concerns and promise to ease the pressure. 

Unfortunately, as weeks pass, you get busy and don’t change anything. The result? You haven’t kept your word, the team member has lost trust in you and you haven’t acted with integrity. 

Integrity means acting honestly, transparently and sincerely. Leaders with integrity do what they say they’ll do, admit their mistakes and stand up for what they believe in. 

Without integrity, team members will soon lose faith in your abilities and motivation to work. 

9. Gratitude 

A leader who can acknowledge when a team has worked hard and show gratitude will keep motivation high.

Expressing your gratitude to your team will help them feel motivated to work for you, boost employee success and even reduce employee turnover.

10. Collaboration

Working in silos can lead to stagnation, a lack of innovation and poor communication between different departments of an organization. 

Great leaders don’t have all the answers, but they’re willing to collaborate with others to achieve the best results. 

Positive collaboration involves a willingness to work with other teams, stakeholders and team members to gain new insights, develop innovative solutions and achieve the best results. 

If you’d like to boost your collaboration skills, Pip Decks Team Tactics can help you nurture working relationships and boost teamwork.

11. Courage

All effective leaders must have the courage to keep moving toward growth, innovation and success. Leadership is challenging, and there are always obstacles. 

Whether you’re working on a near-impossible project, dealing with team conflicts or making difficult decisions, leading is not easy. 

Leadership doesn’t mean always getting it right or doing the right thing. It’s about having the courage to face those difficult times and keep moving forward for the benefit of others. 

12. Influence

The best leaders aren’t intent on forcing others to see their point of view. They are, however, effective in influencing people to understand an overarching vision and work toward it.  

Take some examples of great leaders and their persuasive speeches: Martin Luther King Jr. promoting civil rights, Malala Yousafzai's education activism for young women, and Greta Thunberg's environmental activism. 

These well-known leaders have influenced people through effective communication and reasoned debate, which are highly effective techniques. 

To boost your leadership skills, consider how you can rally your team. 

Do you want to deliver better outcomes for customers? Lead your organization to success? Better the world in some way? 

Whatever your goal, tap into your knowledge of your team and what inspires them to motivate them toward a common goal. 

Real-world examples of leaders with valuable leadership skills

Ready to be the best leader you can be? Take inspiration from these real-world examples. 

You might find ways to improve your leadership style and skills by learning from those with the tenacity, integrity and empathy to lead well and succeed. 

Indra Nooyi, former chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo

Considered one of the most successful leaders in the world, let’s look at the former CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi. She’s well-known for her ability to think strategically, adapt to market trends and her authentic leadership style. 

Nooyi believes in seven core leadership principles: 

  • competence, 
  • creativity, 
  • courage, 
  • communication, 
  • coaching, 
  • compass 
  • and citizenship. 

Those guiding principles help her share ideas effectively, act courageously in challenging times, coach others to be their best and lead others. 

What can we learn from Indra Nooyi? 

To improve your skills, you could develop leadership principles to stick to. These will provide a framework to help you understand your leadership performance and where you can improve. 

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft

Bill Gates is one of the world's most well-known leaders and philanthropists. His transformational leadership style and continuous commitment to innovation are unique.

He co-founded Microsoft in 1975 and radically changed the world by making computers accessible to almost anyone, anywhere.

Gates leads with his vision-focused, innovative mindset. He’s open to continuous learning and optimistic that change is possible. 

What can we learn from Bill Gates? 

To make great progress, you must have a strong vision and believe that achieving it is possible. As a leader, you could change the world for the better. Believing this is the first step. 

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc.

As the CEO of one of the most successful companies on the planet, Tim Cook’s leadership skills help him lead Apple. 

Cook promotes a culture of innovation within the company, encouraging employees to take risks and helping people make the world a better place. 

In his words, “The most important thing Apple is doing is making sure they leave the world better than they found it.” 

What we can learn from Tim Cook

While many leaders want cookie-cutter employees, those employees won’t innovate or change the world. To promote innovation, encourage your team members to be creative, take risks and challenge the status quo. This makes change possible. 

Mary Barra, chair and CEO of General Motors

They say the customer is always right. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, embraces that philosophy in her leadership. She’s encouraged her organization to focus on customer-centricity to provide optimum results for customers. 

With this dedicated focus, Barra shifted General Motors from a traditional automotive company to an organization with an integrated digital experience. 

What we can learn from Mary Barra

Focus on the customer, not profits. Consider how you can develop products and services to solve genuine problems, suit needs and delight customers. 

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company

Howard Schultz doubled down on employee success for a committed workforce for optimum results. 

The Starbucks CEO helps employees thrive with:

  • programs offering health benefits and stock options to part-time employees, 
  • extended training, 
  • better sick leave options and 
  • a partnership with Arizona State University to offer employees college degrees at reduced costs.

What we can learn from Howard Schultz

Investing in and celebrating your employees boosts their loyalty and motivation, improving your organizational culture. This can positively affect customers, reduce employee turnover and increase your bottom line. 

Negative leadership traits to avoid 

A great leader doesn’t just embody positive qualities— they also avoid negative ones. 

Whether it’s having an overbearing nature, lacking trust or not owning up to mistakes, here are some key negative qualities to avoid:

Micromanagement

If employees feel like you’re watching their every move, it can lead to stress, burnout and demotivation. Good leaders trust their team members to do the right thing and help them work independently. 

No empathy

People without empathy often act in ways that don’t focus on the well-being of others. Empathy is essential if you want employees to feel content with their work and valued by your company. 

Lack of ownership

Everyone makes mistakes, but integrity means owning up to your mistakes and ensuring they don’t happen again. 

Poor leaders don’t take ownership when they fail and are more likely to point fingers than focus on solutions. 

Ego-driven actions

Leadership isn’t about doing what benefits you. It’s about ensuring the organization, its employees and its customers thrive. Good leaders move past their egos to make the best decisions possible. 

Resistance to change

Innovation is essential to deliver better outcomes for customers, employees and society. Stubborn people typically lack the skills to lead effectively and make future-proof decisions. 

How to improve your leadership skills

If you’re eager to better your leadership skills, adopt positive leadership qualities and become the best leader you can be, here are some great ways to get started:

1. Develop self-awareness

Whether through journaling, self-reflection or feedback from a mentor, it’s essential to develop self-awareness to understand where you’re doing well and where you could improve.

2. Get feedback

It’s also helpful to gain feedback from your team and senior managers to understand how others perceive your actions and identify areas for improvement.

3. Build strengths and overcome weaknesses

Once you’re clear on what’s working well and where you can improve, make it your goal to take productive steps to boost your skills and be a better leader.

You could take a leadership course, challenge yourself, work with a mentor or try different leadership techniques.

4. Develop your people skills

People skills are critical in leadership. Your team, customers and organization are real people with wants, needs and challenges. 

Improving your people skills will help you work with people, develop empathy and motivate them to do their best.

5. Do outstanding work

To be a great leader, look beyond the status quo. Commit to innovation, continuous improvement and outstanding work to benefit your team, organization and customers. 

Want more leadership tips? Discover how you can practice active listening, have better one-on-one meetings and promote psychological safety in your team. 

FAQs

What defines a great leader?

Great leadership isn’t one quality or specific way of working. It’s typically a set of qualities that excellent leaders embody. These include self-awareness, resilience, effective communication and learning agility. 

These qualities help leaders empathize with their teams, motivate others, inspire action, succeed on projects and ensure people can be their best. 

Is a leader born or made?

While some people are born with natural leadership qualities, all leaders need to learn, grow and hone their skills. 

You may feel you lack the attributes to become a leader, but you can develop your skills with the right learning, mentoring and experience.


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