Are there any leadership traits that all leaders possess? This is an endless debate. It hasn't been resolved because we have no universally agreed definition of leadership. There are some commonly accepted traits, however, that work well enough as long as we don't think too critically about the meaning of leadership.
We also get confused about leadership traits by not specifying whether we should focus on a descriptive or a normative account. From a purely descriptive slant, we can all think of leaders who lacked integrity or any other admirable character trait you care to mention. However, when we say that certain traits are ones that leaders should have to be effective, we can get into debates about who's definition of leadership effectiveness we should accept.
Also, there is the question of whether we should really be defining leadership as a role, as the person in charge or simply as an occasional act of influence. If we take the latter view, then the required traits are far more situational. But first let's list some of the most commonly accepted leadership traits, assuming that being a leader means occupying a role in charge of people.
Commonly Accepted Leadership Traits
Everyone may have a different list of leadership traits but here are some that are frequently mentioned:
Integrity, Intelligence, Maturity, Decisiveness, Vision, Charisma, Emotional Intelligence, Energy, Optimism, Confidence, Judgement
You could easily expand this list to include tenacity, courage, resilience (stress tolerance), organization, interpersonal skills, humility and a sense of humour.
However, it is arguable that this model of leadership is a mixture of leadership and management. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that being a leader means occupying a role in charge of people. On the one hand, this insight simply means that being the boss doesn't make you a leader.
Here is a list of leadership traits for those who want to know how to be a leader in the conventional sense of taking charge of a group of people. But, on the other hand, we might want to rethink leadership so that it is not a role at all but an occasional act of influence.
Leadership As Influence
If we define leadership as influence instead of viewing it as a role in charge of people, a different picture of leadership traits emerges. There are ways of showing leadership that are separate from occupying a managerial position.
There are wo main ways of showing role-independent leadership - leading by example and by direct influence attempts. To lead by example you don't need charisma or a dynamic personality, so these traits cannot be common to all leaders. Much more leadership occurs by example than we normally recognize. Having a dynamic personality is just one means of influencing people - it is not the only one.
You don't absolutely even need any influencing skills. If you do something remarkable, opportunists who see the advantages of your action will jump on the bandwagon through no persuasive effort from you. This is not to say that influencing skills are not helpful. It is only that they can't be essential if it is possible to lead without them.
If they are not essential then we cannot say that all leaders must have them.
Leadership defined as showing the way for others is what Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing when he challenged discriminatory practices against African Americans. Mahatma Gandhi also challenged British rule over India and had a leadership impact on the British government when they granted India independence.
King and Gandhi had very different personalities but they both had the courage to challenge the status quo at great risk.
Traits shared by leaders who challenge the status quo
- Willingness to stand out, differentiate yourself, risk rejection by being different, a dose of rebelliousness.
- Determination and perseverance to push through your own ideas.
- Improvement drive - desire to find better ways of doing things, curiosity.
- Questioning mind - not accepting authority, willingness to challenge the status quo.
- Self belief - believing that you can think for yourself and devise a better way.
- Thick skin - being able to withstand criticism and recover from setbacks.
- Learning from mistakes - being prepared to try things to find what works.
- You might call this combination of traits a spirit of adventure. It is more commonly, but not exclusively, found in younger people.
These are the only (or main) traits you need to lead by example. Leaders who use more explicit, direct influence skills will have these traits as well.
So, to be a leader you don't need outstanding interpersonal skills, to be good looking, tall, well built, charismatic, a great speaker, highly outgoing or dynamic. Think of the computer techie who leads the field in a specialized software market only by being an outstanding innovator.
Also, many leaders do not happen to manage people, so the usual list of people development skills cannot apply to all leaders either.
To become a leader, start by finding something new to get excited about. Your excitement will influence people even if you are not normally very persuasive. Where content is genuinely king, you might be able to have a leadership impact on people even if you lack most of the conventional leadership traits.
Leadership And Relationships
If you believe the popular press, you will think that your ability to build relationships with people is the most essential leadership trait you must have to be a leader. Maybe you have in mind a variation on this theme: the ability to inspire or a knack for treating people well. This is a myth.
Before I explain what is wrong with the popular concept of leadership, let my say straight out that the only two essential factors are these: having something worthwhile to say and the courage to say it. If you can see a better way of doing things and have the courage to stand up and promote it, you can show leadership. It doesn't have to be a grand vision of a radically different way of living with the potential to revolutionize life on the whole planet. It might be a very small, local change that you feel a need to promote, let's say in the way certain files are organized in your office. How you convince people depends only on what it takes to convince them. You can't say in a vacuum that it will take a great vision of a utopian filing system or an inspirational speaking voice. It might only take a short argument that states the benefits clearly and calmly for reorganizing some files.
OK, so you can see the need for lots of changes where you work. What's stopping you from promoting them? This boils it down to courage. This is really the only characteristic that stands between you and showing leadership.
How can this be the case, you ask, when everyone is talking about the importance of people skills and emotional intelligence if you want to be a leader?
The critical issue is this: What is the phenomenon we're trying to explain? There is a world of difference between the conventional concept of leadership that talks of what it takes to rise to significant positions of authority over others and a very different view that focuses on simply showing leadership regardless of position.
To show leadership as a front-line employee with no one reporting to you, the key characteristic is courage. But the saying "content is king'' also applies. If you really have a good idea to sell, it will almost sell itself, especially if you can demonstrate its value beyond question. It also depends on the receptivity of your prospective followers. If they are currently doing the exact opposite of what you are suggesting and are highly committed to it, then yes you will need some powerful influencing skills as well as a good idea and a strong dose of courage. On the other hand, if your prospective followers are complete opportunists and your idea really hits their hot buttons, then you don't need to be a stellar influencer at all.
To become a leader in the conventional sense, that is to get appointed to, and maintain, a managerial position, you will need some stronger traits than a good idea and courage. Good content is still essential; you have to have credibility, to know what you are talking about. But now you also need to be good at managing people.
The simplest way to see what it takes to manage people is to notice the difference between promoting your own solutions and drawing them out of others. People want to feel that you value them and the best way to do this is to ask them for their opinions, ideas, and suggestions on how they think work related problems might be solved. If, instead, you constantly rely on your own expertise to tell others what to do they will listen if they think you are a really strong character, know what you're talking about and aren't comfortable questioning you too closely.
But people won't really be committed if you just sell or tell people what to do. All you'll get is compliance, which could turn into resentment or revolt if you slip up. To really win commitment, you need to involve people in making important decisions, although not to the extent that they don't think you can make your own decisions. The bottom line is that it's about getting the balance right between telling and asking.
Where do you want to go from here?
Want to read more on the relationship between vision and leadership? If leadership isn't just an influence process, then it's a role in a hierarchy, but this is biologically primitive. See Primitive Leadership for more on this topic. For more discussion of how leadership can work as influence, see Thought Leadership, Bottom-up Leadership and Organic Leadership.
For more unconventional thinking on leadership see our sister site LEAD2XL