Characteristics of a Leader

What are the Characteristics of a Leader?


When you search for the characteristics of good leaders online, you will find the number of characteristics listed as 5, 8, 10, 14, 21 or any other such number.

Why is that? Isn’t there a set number every expert can agree on? Apparently not.

You see, leadership is a strange animal. Although leadership experts can agree on what makes for good leadership in the larger sense, the number of characteristics deemed as necessary for it can vary greatly. While I say seven, John Maxwell wrote a more detailed list in his book The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.  


So, depending on how general or detailed you choose to analyze leadership, the numbers will vary. That’s because leadership defies a permanent and static definition – it cannot be boxed. It’s always recognized by people when they witness it, but the varying styles of influences which makes it up can make it hard to pin down. It’s a bit like trying to predict the weather. There are ways to do it, but it sure isn’t an exact science. Leadership is, in a way, quite intangible.


Nevertheless, there are some characteristics that cannot be overlooked and that defy time, cultures, trends, and situations. They are:


  • People Skills
  • Smarts
  • Vision
  • Character
  • Adaptability
  • Focus
  • “IT” Factor


These are, in my opinion, the main (in a larger sense) characteristics of a good leader. Now, I’m going to go down that list and explain what each of these characteristics entail, and why they matter.



 People skills:

 These are the leader’s know how when it comes to communicating effectively whether to an individual or a group. It also includes his capacity to gain trust quickly, and his/her capacity for empathy. So, basically, his/her E.Q. (Emotional Intelligence) and S.Q. (Social Intelligence).


Emotional Quotient is a (notional) measure of a person’s adequacy in such areas as self-awareness, empathy, and dealing sensitively with other people. It became a ‘thing’ in the early 90’s when Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer coined the term describing it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action”. Later, it was more thoroughly defined by Daniel Goleman in his bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence.


"Emotional is more rare than book smarts, but my experience says it is actually more important in the making of a leader.” – Jack Welsh


In our world of complex human interactions, E.Q. and S.Q. may very well be a leader’s best friend. After all, leadership is about inspiring people to be at their best in following a vision, work, or cause. This is why the most successful leaders today are not necessarily the smartest in terms of I.Q. Don’t get me wrong, they are smart… but probably outshined many who were smarter on their way to the top.


I.Q. get you hired… E.Q. gets you promoted




 This is the leader’s keenness of mind. His overall knowledge, quick wits, and I.Q. paired with how and when to put them to good use. In short, the leader’s acumen and know how.


“Competence goes beyond words. It’s the leader’s ability to say it, plan it, and do it in such a way that others know that you know how – and know that they want to follow you.” – John C. Maxwell


We live in a world where competence is very, very valued. And yet, in a weird way, it’s taken for granted. Don’t believe me? Just check how annoyed you are the next time you have to deal with an incompetent. Yeah, we take it for granted, and yet, it isn’t very common. As they say, ‘Common sense isn’t so common.’

And, as a leader, incompetence or downright stupidity is just inadmissible. A leader must be smart in order to show the way and go the way in the timeliest manner.




This is the leader’s goal setting stratagem and scope. How far ahead are they able to see and make provisions for? How high is their aim and how functional is their plan?

The leader’s vision is fourfold:

  • Sees MORE than others see
  • Sees FURTHER than others see
  • Sees BEFORE others see
  • Helps others see what he sees


Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” ― Jack Welch (Former CEO of General Electric)


It takes a solid vision for a leader to get people behind him. The clearer the picture, the more compelling he will make it to others.




This is the leader’s integrity and strength of character. Remember, character is doing the right thing, even when nobody is looking.


In my book Lead Like a Superhero, Captain America is the character I chose to demonstrate what strong character is. He always aims to do the right thing – even when no one is watching. It’s part of his trademark. This is why even Thor (a god) does what he says. That’s how much character matters.


People of Character:


– Model and emulate great people from history

– Pursue virtue, wisdom, and understanding

– Seek out good company

– Build people up through their words and actions

– Mind their tongue

– Keep their emotions in check

– Have integrity

– Are people who keep their word


Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” – John Wooden


Great leaders always model great character. And when they don’t, that’s where their influence stops. That’s when their leadership fails.




 This is the leader’s ease of adaptability and capacity to change gears when needed. His/her ability to go to a plan B, C, or even D and to rally their troops for the change.


Adaptability is being able to adjust to any situation at any given time.  – John Wooden


A leader’s adaptability creates trust and a sense of security among his followers. When things go south, as they often do in organizations, you need to be a leader who adapts quickly and transitions smoothly. Panic is never an option for good leaders.




 Focus is the leader’s drive and determination to reach goals. It’s his/her capacity to not let trivial things derail them from priorities and to stay on track.

Focus is the ability to say no, even to the most tempting offers, if they detract you from your original and worthwhile goal. It is the ability to refuse even good things and great times which would distract you from your ultimate vision and purpose. Here is an interesting acrostic with the word ‘FOCUS’:








“IT” factor: 

 The ‘IT’ factor is often overlooked when leadership experts put up a list of a leader’s characteristics. The reason is quite simple; it cannot be readily identified or quantified. It varies greatly for each individual. One leader might attract followers because of his great intelligence, another through his quick wits, another through his compassion, and another because of his/her good looks. It could be defined as the leader’s magnetism or charisma combined with his/her ability to gain trust quickly. It’s basically the leader’s “Je ne sais quoi”, which brings that extra flavour to his/her leadership. It’s also the leader’s uniqueness and individuality.


Everybody is unique. Every leader is unique. The flavor they bring, their unique gifting, and their way to go about their business can make their leadership soar, or tank. Some leaders have a very high ‘IT’ factor, and some not. Those who don’t need a very solid supporting cast to maintain their following, even if they rank high in the other characteristics. Those who do have it are like magnets. They have the leadership equivalence of a Midas touch, even if they rank a bit lower in the other categories. But, on the flip side; if they rely too much on their ‘IT’ factor, they will eventually lose.


Charisma gets you in the room, but character keeps you there.


So, there you have it. Those are the seven main characteristics of a leader. Make them a part of your leadership arsenal. Cultivate them. Study them. Emulate them. Model them for others. It’s what any great leader does.


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