If you do a search for leadership traits you’ll find a wide range of topics. A seemingly infinite supply of definitions for leadership traits exist. One Forbes article suggests that leadership traits are like talents and giftings. Another used a list of words that suggest these are leadership values. One post suggested that leadership traits were words that have nothing to do with research like enthusiasm and optimism. Let’s cut through the clutter and only look at what the research says around successful leadership traits.
Leadership traits aren’t something that needs to be guessed at or pontificated on. The research is clear regarding what traits successful leaders possess. Thanks to the research that Kousez and Posner did in Leadership Challenge we don’t have to guess. Spoiler Alert! There’s nothing on this list that is intrinsic to the person or new. That answers the question, Are Leaders Born? These 4 leadership traits are behind the success of every president and local election even if they don’t appear to be on the surface.
Leadership Trait vs Leadership Value
Before we dive into these 4 leadership traits that every successful leader has, we need to understand the difference between leadership traits and leadership values. A trait is a descriptive term. When a criminal admits to lying, cheating, and stealing, he is being honest. He has the “trait” of honesty at that moment.
A value, on the other hand, is something that is internal and motivates your actions. If you have honesty as a value then you’d tend to be honest even to a fault.
These 4 leadership traits of highly successful leaders are “traits.” The leader needs only to possess them in a given task. These are compartmentalized traits for some of the leaders we think of as successful.
In every poll, every year on leaders that constituents want to follow one trait pops up as number one. Honesty. Remember, this is a trait that you and I desire most and the trait we think of most when we think about a great leader. As with many of these traits, honesty doesn’t have to be a value. Politicians get a bad rap here for good reason, but it’s likely that they believed their own campaign speeches and therefore were being honest in the moment.
The one characteristic that reigns supreme every year and yet it’s the one that typically comes into question as the leader of an organization moves further and further away from the end customer. Why is that? Does the leader become less honest over time? Does power corrupt?
Sometimes that happens, but more often what happens is that as the leader’s role expands, their vision and intentions become diluted.
Entrepreneurs often make the mistake of skipping mission, vision, and values and choose to continue to push the business. They jump off the mountain and build the plane on the way down after all. This creates a lack of clarity in the future. This seemingly small lack of clarity expands and as the business grows, so does the confusion.
There is a negative bias when there is a lack of clarity or if silence is present. In other words, in the absence of a clear vision, people tend to think negatively.
In some ways, the clarity of vision could determine the effectiveness of the leader. Of course, without the competence to complete the vision, it doesn’t matter how clear it is.
When researched, competence is a leadership trait that came up over and over again. Again, this was research based on what we attribute as the most essential leadership traits. Isn’t it ironic that at least two of these (honesty and competence) are often the ones in question for the highest leadership in a country? Competence is the word that is used, but it’s not exactly what you think it is. It’s not technical skill or mastery. Simply put, “[We] have to know you can get the job done (Kousez and Posner).”
Competence is usually assumed at the highest level however, it’s easy to undermine it. Joe Biden has become famous as a former vice president and presidential candidate that continues to do things that undermine the perception of competence. He’s not the only one, almost every president has had their competence questioned. However, most presidents got elected because they were able to cast a clear enough vision and deliver an inspiring message of how to get there.
Like competence, being inspiring can be interpreted 100 different ways. Inspiring doesn’t mean charismatic but that the leader possesses traits we aspire to. For some traditional leadership values of humility and integrity will inspire. Others might be inspired by what the leader has already accomplished.
The key element is that for a leader to be successful the must inspire a movement. If they are to inspire you, you must trust that the vision they paint can be accomplished.
Why These 4 Leadership Traits Are Key
None of the words are especially surprising. However, a great leader cannot be great without at least some aspect of these four traits. When a leader possesses these four keys they unlock something that every leader must have in order to actually lead. Credibility. Credibility is the substance of these four traits. It’s credibility that wins elections and causes organizations to flourish. It’s credibility that gains trust (the fundamental building block of a team) and it’s credibility that causes you and I to act on a leader’s vision.