What are the top 5 traits of exceptional leaders?

Hannah Wright
Last updated on 3rd September 2020
3 min read

Are you a born leader?

Despite the old adage of some people being natural born leaders, leadership is in fact a skill that can be learnt and developed.

In fact, here’s a whole industry of coaches, mentors, and development courses dedicated to leadership skills, especially as more and more people decide to become their own boss.

However, if everyone is being encouraged to become a leader these days, how do you stand out from the crowd and become an exceptional leader in your workplace?

Leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman identified the top leadership skills that are most important for success, after they spoke to more than 300,000 business leaders in one of the biggest research projects of its type.

There were several traits that stood out above the rest. How many of these do you have?

1. They’re masterful communicators

This one sounds obvious, but is harder to master than many might think.

The best leaders strike the right tone and message across any situation and medium. Be it in one-to-one conversation, speaking at a town-hall style meeting or over a quick email, they are clear, concise, compelling and compassionate.

Don’t mistake this for always knowing what and how to say it though. The best leaders are honest, and if they don’t know something, aren’t afraid to say. As a result, they earn their colleagues’ trust.

It’s also not just about what you say, but also what you don’t say. The best leaders know when to keep quiet and know how to actively listen. Do you actively take on board what others are telling you?

2. They’re unafraid of showing soft skills

To be an effective leader it’s often wrongly perceived that you must be strong, ruthless and not scared to upset people. However, the best leaders know how and when to utilize a set of softer people skills, such as humility and empathy.

As a leader, you may often have to have difficult conversations with your team members or other employees, so being able to deliver unwelcome news in a sensitive, tactful way, is a sign of a good leader.

Showing understanding and compassion when people are going through a tough time and perhaps need some extra support at work, also marks the sign of a great leader. You might have deadlines and demanding clients, but if you don’t recognize when your own people need to be cut some slack, then they won’t be as engaged and productive in the long run.

Exceptional leaders are also great relationship-builders.

Take time every day to build relationships with the members of your team, your customers and vendors, your boss and your boss’ boss, others in your industry, and your community. The stronger your relationships, the better a leader you will be.

3. They display integrity and honesty – and embrace failure

Great leaders are honest and transparent, and have high integrity–they do what they say they are going to do, and they walk their talk.

They’re also not afraid to admit to failure.

The best leaders are those who aren’t afraid to take a risk and try something new, and in leading by example, they instil a culture of being open to embracing new ideas. A leader who never fails at anything is not pushing the boundaries or evolving.

Leaders who aren’t afraid to try something new become more resilient, as they simply get back on with the next task when one area of business doesn’t quite work out.

4. They’re visionaries who innovate and inspire others

Exceptional leaders are great at visualizing the future and seeing the bigger picture. They are confident and optimistic and able to make decisions to set clear goals to reach that future vision. They innovate and aren’t afraid to push boundaries.

Being a visionary is also about inspiring those around you to join you on the journey towards that future vision.

Think about a great leader you’ve worked with before – have they inspired you and others? If you can inspire others you’re always going to get their commitment and the best work from them.

5. They’re creative and solve problems

Creativity might not be an obvious trait for a great leader but it has always been at the heart of business, and in Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s study creativity and problem solving was named as one of the most important leadership qualities, outweighing others such as global thinking.

Creativity in business is about being resourceful, thinking outside the box, and not accepting something can’t be done – but instead finding different solutions to a problem.

It also means, as a consequence, driving results. You can be the most creative person in the world, but if that doesn’t translate into business results, then you’re only going to go so far.

Great leaders have a higher level of perseverance, stick-to-itiveness, and drive than most anyone else, and they can be counted on to get things done.

How do you motivate your people?

A successful leader is one who motivates their team.

We think it’s best summed up by Lao Tzu: ‘A leader is best when people barely know they exist, when their work is done, their aim fulfilled, the people will say: “we did it ourselves”’.

Would your team agree this is you?

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