True leadership is about trust and integrity, holding yourself accountable, and inspiring your team to be their best professional selves.
There’s a reason we have a childhood game called “Follow the Leader.” The simple fact is that people you manage are looking to you not only for guidance, instruction, and encouragement, but also to set the tone for your company’s work culture. Leaders cannot expect people to be ethical, committed, or resilient if they don’t display those traits themselves.
In this article, we’ll explore what I consider to be the essential characteristics of great leaders.
1. An effective leader leads by example.
- An executive who’s too “important” to do the real work and expects team members to take up the slack will find no loyalty among the troops.
- A boss who constantly looks for compliance loopholes or skirts the rules will discover that the employees follow suit.
- A manager who badmouths the company and upper management will foster dissatisfaction amongst their charges—dissatisfaction that may well be turned against them down the road.
- A leader who manages the clock, does the work, exhibits commitment, and expects the same, will have a team that exceeds expectations.
2. An effective leader has a strong work ethic.
By demonstrating a strong ethic of work, a leader earns the right to demand the same. There’s no better motivator than seeing the boss down in the trenches with everyone else, demonstrating that hard work is valued at every level of company hierarchy.
As a leader, ask yourself these questions:
- When everyone around you is goofing off, what are you doing?
- When faced with the option of doing things the quick way or the right way, which do you choose?
- Do you strive for excellence or “just good enough?”
3. An effective leader models ethics and integrity.
Ethics isn’t simply knowing right from wrong. It’s about the actions you take. It’s choosing the right course consistently, even when no one is watching, when the stakes are highest, and especially, when all around you are behaving unethically.
Fostering an ethical work culture isn’t easy. First, an organization should consider putting a code of ethics in writing and actively sharing that code with every employee. Perhaps more importantly, leaders at every level in the company should adhere to that code—in public and in private.
Closely related to ethics, integrity encompasses the personal qualities of honesty, fairness, and common decency. Strong leaders hold themselves accountable, accepting credit for their mistakes as well as their victories. They inspire trust by being reliable, incorruptible, and fully transparent about their strengths and weaknesses.
When you ask people to follow your lead, you are asking them to trust you. Think back to the managers, teachers, or coaches who had the most profound influence on you:
- Were they unwaveringly honest, even when the truth was hard to face?
- Did they treat everyone with equal respect?
- Did they make those under their leadership feel valued?
- Did you trust them?
4. An effective leader fosters potential.
Great leaders not only recognize potential; they feed it, prepare it, and allow the holder to exercise it. They are not threatened by talent or drive; they encourage it and set it free through careful mentorship.
Exceptional leaders leave a legacy of successful mentees in their wake. They do not see their former protégées as competitors, but as valued colleagues—and often, as lifelong friends.
5. An effective leader is a great communicator.
You know what you want your team to accomplish. It’s so clear inside your head. But when you try to explain it, you’re met with blank looks.
If you’ve had this experience, you may need to hone your communication skills. If you can’t relate your vision to your team, clearly and succinctly, you won’t all be working towards the same goal.
Training new members and creating a productive work environment all depend on healthy lines of communication. In a smaller firm, an open-door policy to your office can accomplish that. At a larger agency, you could find efficient ways to talk to your staff on a regular basis, whether in person or virtually. Either way, if you communicate well, your team will learn to trust and depend on you.
6. An effective leader has a realistic dose of confidence.
Confidence in oneself, one’s team, and the company as a whole is essential to running an organization. A leader must display confidence, but never arrogance. Arrogance is unearned self-confidence. It’s all hat, no cattle—a performance with nothing behind it. People will not tolerate arrogance, and they certainly will not follow it.
True confidence is a firm, well-founded belief that one is prepared to handle the task or obstacle that lies ahead. Confidence is quiet. To quote my friend Jason Bown, “Those who are confident don’t have to say so, people just see it.”
7. An effective leader also exhibits humility—and a sense of humor.
When everything goes wrong, great leaders show what they’re made of. If your computer system crashes, you lose a major account, or that “for sure deal” turns into a complaint, that’s when the real test of leadership kicks in: Will you make excuses or blame your team? Or will you own up to mistakes, admit what you don’t know, and guide the crew through the crisis without panicking?
This is the time for humility and transparency. To get through this mess, you shouldn’t pretend you have everything under control. You don’t. But you’re on it, and if you’re honest about that, your team will trust you to troubleshoot with them in good faith.
This is also a moment when a sense of humor can really pay off. Encourage your team to laugh at mistakes instead of crying or cursing. If you can find humor in the struggles, your work environment will become a happy and healthy space, where employees look forward to challenges rather than dreading or fearing them. Make it a point to crack jokes with your team. And most important of all, be willing and able to laugh at yourself.
8. An effective leader is positive.
The workplace can be a negative, high-stress environment. Employees may absorb negativity all day long from aggrieved consumers. Your role is to be the antidote.
One of the most important missions of a leader is to instill optimism, resilience, and positive energy into the organization. Morale is difficult to build and easy to destroy. Nothing shatters spirits more than abuses of power—berating, bullying, or exploding with anger may inspire fear, but never loyalty.
So, how can a boss nurture a positive workplace?
- Focus on successes. Yes, we in management have to address mistakes and problems. But we don’t have to focus on them.
- Leave it outside. We’ve all had that day when nothing goes right. It may have started with a flat tire and an argument with a loved one and ended with a written warning. Whatever it is, leave it outside of work. Remember that old commercial: “Never let them see you sweat.”
- Celebrate the small things. Recognize minor victories any chance you get.
9. An effective leader is resilient.
Guiding your team through day-to-day tasks can be honed to a science. But when something unexpected occurs, the team will look to you for guidance. A true leader can still steer the ship even in uncharted waters.
This is when your intuition kicks in. Drawing on past experience is a good reflex, as is reaching out to a mentor for support. Eventually, the decision will come down to you. You’ll have to depend on your gut— in other words, the sum total of your knowledge, skills, and values. Learning to trust yourself is as important as your team learning to trust you.
10. An effective leader knows how to inspire.
A great leader knows how to impart a grand vision and make the team feel invested in the organization’s accomplishments. Acknowledge the work that everyone has put in and commend the team on their effort. And at low points, when everyone is mired deep in work and morale is ebbing, it’s your job to raise spirits—and to recognize that everyone needs a break now and then.
Be doggedly hopeful. Your positive attitude will be contagious.
Being a leader is more than just taking charge. It’s about inspiring trust in your team. It’s about lifting their spirits when things go badly, accepting responsibility for failures, and passing on credit for successes. And most of all, it’s about challenging your fellow professions to find out what they’re capable of achieving. Expect the best from yourself and them, and everyone will deliver.
A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn and was republished with permission of the author.
About the author:
Clay A. Kahler, B.A., M.Rs, M.A., Ph.D. brings an extensive background of military police and civilian law enforcement experience. He has earned degrees in Biblical Studies and Theology. He is an author, instructor, professor, lecturer and pastor. Clay also holds OSHA certifications in “Basic Accident Investigation” and “Effective Accident Investigation” as well as numerous certifications from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.