All We Really Want from a Leader is…

Recently I led a workshop for emerging leaders where the participants read some short biographies about different leaders from different parts of the world in different leadership sectors.  Through an exercise calling for discussions, debates, persuasion, and sometimes  for conflict resolution skills, these leaders had to agree on the five most important leadership traits based on the biographies of these diverse leaders.

The point of the experience is to give them practice in influencing, collaborating, negotiating, and in thinking critically about leadership.  It’s a way to create engaged learners, rather than passive learners who simply read the PowerPoint Slide that says, “The 5 Most Important Leadership Traits Are…”

This group chose these five traits…after some rigorous and spirited “robust dialogue!”

  • Communicator—They wanted someone who was a good communicator, through interpersonal interactions and through public presentations.
  • Competent—They wanted someone who was competent at the job.  Competence is inspiring in a leader, and even more importantly perhaps, incompetence is demoralizing.
  • Empowering—Great leaders empower others to act.  Leaders understand that leadership is not meant to be used to denigrate others, it’s meant to be a position that serves others by enabling them to be successful.
  • Trustworthy—These emerging leaders identified this as one of the most important traits a leader can possess.  While passion for the job—may ebb and flow—in that a leader may be more passionate about one thing than another, it’s not possible to say that about trustworthiness.  We want leaders who are trustworthy all of the time.
  • Visionary—Leaders are not just focused on the now.  Leaders focus on the future, too.  They cast shared visions of a preferred future which inspire passion and commitment.  They articulate our highest dreams and give voice to our own aspirations.

I liked their list.  Although I recognize that no list is exhaustive or definitive, I believe it helps us understand leadership better to inductively study leaders and identify the traits that we appreciate and long to emulate.  However, what made their list even more fascinating to me was when I compared it to the research of Kouzes and Posner as described in their classic book on leadership, The Leadership Challenge.  Kouzes and Posner have published the results of an ongoing 20+ year survey that they have done in which they ask participants what traits that they most admire in leaders.  Over the last two decades, here are the four that remain in the top five—year in and year out.

1)      Honesty

2)      Forward Looking

3)      Inspiring

4)      Competent

Almost the exact same traits that the group inductively chose!

What does it mean?  Kouzes and Posner suggest that altogether these traits all add up to one big word for leaders: Credibility.

If you want to be seen as a credible leader, maybe it starts with focusing on a few key traits.  It seems to be what people—everywhere—are crying out for.


Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

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