How to Identify Key Leadership Characteristics

leadership characteristics

Integrity. Influence. Self-awareness. Empathy. What are the most essential characteristics of leadership? It’s a topic of endless debate, but most everyone can agree on one thing: Leaders show others the way. Granted, it may not always be the right way, but where leaders go, others follow.

Leaders have always been important, but in this nearly post-pandemic world, they are more important than ever.  In the absence of good leadership, businesses squander resources and waste time. Some of them even made money despite their ineffectiveness. That was yesterday. Today, the global economy and a fiercely-competitive environment leave no room for poor leadership.

It’s easy to recognize a leader when you see one in action. They’re the ones that others are following and paying attention to, but good leadership is a bit trickier to identify — both in practice and through the lens of your hiring process. Frankly, leadership isn’t a cookie-cutter concept. Leaders come from different experiences and backgrounds and, of course, just having followers is not enough to cement one’s “good leader” status. You want leaders that ascribe to your company values and vision.

It’s important to recognize that leaders have different styles. One style isn’t inherently better than the other, but during challenging times your company may benefit from one approach over another. Your business model and your company’s stage of growth matter as well. Certainly, it helps to have diversity among your leaders. They balance one another’s ideas and opinions and pull the best from the organization. 

How do you ensure that you have a sustainable business for the future? Hire the best leaders and potential leaders with the qualities your business requires and help them continue to develop and grow. It begins with recognizing and learning about the various characteristics of leadership.

What Are Leadership Characteristics? 

To better understand leadership characteristics, it’s helpful to understand the objective of leadership. One of the best quotes on leadership comes from Dwight Eisenhower: 

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

From this quote, we understand that leadership is as much about understanding and influencing others as it is about personal characteristics. Leadership is an elevated state. It’s more than the assigned role or the well-honed skills upon which we often define ourselves. Leaders must have followers — people who believe in them. Without followers, a leader ceases to exist.

One way to think about leadership is by viewing a leader as someone who has the ability to inspire and mobilize others. To do this, you must understand what motivates others to act. The best leaders have characteristics that others respond to in a positive manner. These characteristics are the qualities and personality traits that define them. 

As there is much debate about the definition of leadership, there is also debate about the universal characteristics that leaders share. Some of the top characteristics include, for example, the ability to do the following:

  • Mobilize others to act
  • Communicate effectively
  • Drive toward achievement
  • Practice good interpersonal skills
  • Develop self and others
  • Be flexible
  • Be self-aware and self-regulating
  • Practice ethical behaviors

At Y Scouts, our proprietary Leadership Model distills these important concepts into what we believe are the three most essential tenets.

  • Results-driven: Leaders must think about where the company is going, considering both its internal capabilities and the external environment. They must make strategic decisions and mobilize teams when action is required.
  • Develops others: Leaders must assess, coach, mentor and delegate to others, helping to prepare them with the hard and soft skills they need to take action. 
  • Relentless learner: Leaders develop their own capabilities, including their emotional intelligence, so that they become better listeners, more resilient, open to change and able to accept feedback from others.

Y Scouts Articles on the Characteristics of Leadership 

There are a number of leadership styles and characteristics. Depending on the situation, some are more appropriate than others. While there is no one-size-fits-all, most leaders exhibit a preference. The best leaders, however, can adapt — or hire others — to ensure that the approach they use is effective and that they are motivating the people they lead. This topic is near and dear to us at Y Scouts, and it’s one we’ve covered extensively on our blog to help hiring teams identify quality leaders.

A quick clarification on terminology: Leadership characteristics and leadership styles are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. A leadership style is simply a group of characteristics that have been classified as defining a certain manner of leading. Effective communication is a characteristic. Transformational leadership is a style.

Natural-Born Leaders?

What is perhaps one of the most important discussions surrounding leadership is whether leaders are born or made. Decades ago, peer-reviewed research suggested that 30% of leadership ability is genetic. Fair enough, but do those bossy kids on the playground continue into their adult lives getting others to jump off that proverbial cliff your parents warned you about?  

Not necessarily. According to more recent research, leaders are mostly made. While there are some characteristics that predispose some to be leaders, that’s not the end of the story. Many leadership skills are developed over time and through experience, meaning it’s likely that the bossy kid had to learn some people skills along the way in order to leverage their natural talents in the workforce.

Another relevant concern is the role of bias preventing the hiring of the best leaders. Most often, this bias is implicit, meaning that the person doing the hiring isn’t able to verbalize the issue, they only know that something is wrong. This is where bias rears its ugly head. 

Although there have been many studies on height and leadership, it doesn’t take a scientific study to understand that height and other physical factors change the way we think about who is qualified to lead. For example, on the playground, little children — both literally and figuratively — look up to bigger children and follow them. Of course, biases are not limited to height. America’s companies exhibit a surprising lack of diversity, even though population demographics have changed dramatically. 

The study of leadership characteristics, however, provides a different perspective and gives us new tools with which to make critical hiring decisions. Turns out that leaders can be made, and the largest percentage of leadership capabilities is cultivated through experience and learning.

Why Are Leadership Characteristics Important? 

Being a great leader is about eliciting the desired outcomes from a happy group of followers. Unfortunately, getting people to do things and do them well is never easy. Simply being “the boss” and paying people a fair wage is not enough. No matter how much power or authority the boss wields and no matter how big the corner office is, it will not be enough to influence employees toward stellar performance. 

In addition to formal authority, leaders must possess certain characteristics that allow them to work effectively with others. Good leaders are able to produce results because they can make the work meaningful and important. They do this by emphasizing the following:

  • Understanding what makes individuals tick
  • Inspiring them with a vision
  • Gaining their trust
  • Empowering them to succeed, and 
  • Supporting them as they achieve — and exceed — expectations 

Moreover, leadership characteristics allow us to understand that leadership is not some magical power that belongs to a privileged few. The traits that make a good leader can be broken down into manageable pieces that can be developed and enhanced. 

Does Everyone Have Leadership Qualities? 

So we understand that leadership can be learned, but does that mean that everyone has the potential to lead? Probably so. Most people can be leaders given the right circumstances. There are many types of leaders and many environments where people can practice leadership (home, community, the dog park, etc.), meaning there may well be a leadership niche for everybody.  

Perhaps the better question is whether or not everyone can be a leader in your company. Even more specifically, can they fill the leadership roles you need right now? Of course, you already know that the answer is no. There are no plug-and-play leaders. A great leader at Zoom or Gravity Payments may not be a great leader for you.

You need someone with the right mix of experience and skills who can blend with your leadership team, yet add enough variety to keep things interesting and fresh. Plus, it’s a good idea to have a diverse mix of leadership characteristics. As part of your hiring process, you need to make an objective determination of your culture and your leadership requirements. Once you’ve done that, it will be easier to know what type of leader you need.

Differentiate Between a Leader and Manager 

Leaders can be managers, and managers can be leaders. The business world needs both, and one is not inherently better than the other. However, as with leadership styles, one may dominate for any one individual. 

Leaders are concerned with the following.

  • Setting the vision: Craft a vision that resonates with their followers
  • Innovation: Capitalizing on new opportunities and driving change
  • Effectiveness and execution: Mobilizing resources to put the plan into action
  • Big-picture thinking: Tendency to focus on patterns and make sense of disparate bits of data
  • Strategy: Actions that help realize the vision
  • Following the dream: Eye on the future possibilities
  • Capacity: Taking care of assets for future capabilities
  • Right-brain thinking: Connecting ideas through associations and patterns
  • People as assets: Lifeblood of the company

Managers are concerned with the following.

  • Following the vision: Dedicated to getting things done to achieve the vision
  • Administration: Implementing processes, structuring the organization, and focusing on budgets
  • Efficiency and production: Producing on time and under budget
  • Details: Using data to drive decisions without needing to see the big picture
  • Tactics: Small steps to achieve a short-term goal
  • Practical progression: Step by step
  • Productivity: Producing more widgets 
  • Left-brain thinking: Connecting similar thoughts to get from point A to point B
  • People as resources: Having utility for getting things done through people

Determining whether you need a manager or a leader will depend upon where your organization wants to go next. However, managers do share some characteristics with leaders, such as those outlined above, as part of the Y Scouts leadership model. These characteristics could be considered universal traits that you would want in all of your people. As you develop your bench strength, the focus should be on hiring not just the right technical skills and experiences but on developing your next-generation leaders.

Which Characteristics Have Become More Important? 

The characteristics of good leadership have changed over the years. Leadership has shifted away from the autocratic and task-oriented style that dominated businesses just a few decades ago. Today, leaders are increasingly more collaborative and people-oriented. With this change has come a greater focus on emotional intelligence and soft skills. 

Organizations that want to compete in the coming decade will continue to develop leaders that understand how to get the best results. This means that leaders must demonstrate a greater awareness of how people respond to their leadership style as well as the ability to change in response to shifting conditions.

The ability to develop trust and provide leadership from afar will be particularly important as remote roles continue to comprise a significant percentage of the workforce. As the approach to leadership continues to evolve, will your company be ready?

Find Your Next Leader

If you’re looking to build out your leadership team, Y Scouts can help. We work with you to find the right person, ensuring that the process is not only professional but enjoyable. As a purpose-driven leadership search firm, we are committed to helping you achieve your goals faster. We understand that not just any hire will do. We take the time to understand your business and its direction so that we can find the best person for the role.