Business Leadership Today

Top 10 Qualities of an Exceptional Leader


John Spence, Contributor

Are leaders made or born? It’s a question asked often in the business world. I have a strong opinion on this. 

Often, leadership ability is touted as a trait a person is born with. However, based on 30 years of working with leaders worldwide, I believe that leadership can be learned. 

The key to being an exceptional leader is dependent upon one’s ability to develop certain qualities. 

The qualities of a leader are honesty, competence, vision, communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence, adaptability quotient, strategic planning, courage, and passion. Although challenging, each of these qualities is learnable and can be improved upon over time. 

Below I will list what I feel are the top 10 qualities of an exceptional leader. Let’s take a look.

1. Honesty

Honesty is the most critical characteristic of effective leadership. PERIOD. Where there is no honesty, there is no trust. Where there is no trust, there is no leadership.

Honest leaders build trust by consistently acting with integrity and authenticity. They never wear a mask. They live their values and lead by example. They create a culture of transparency, open communication, and psychological safety. 

Their actions encourage others to speak with candor. Feedback, even when critical, is welcomed. The leader’s dedication to truthfulness inspires truthfulness in others.

Some say that you cannot learn to be honest. I beg to differ. I believe that a person can change their behavior and become honest. But they must choose to do so. If someone is a liar and does not desire to be honest, no amount of training or study will change them.

2. Competence

Competent leaders understand that they must be very good at what they do. They approach their role as not just a job, but a craft. They dedicate themselves to lifelong learning. They are constantly trying to improve and grow. 

They do this through reading, listening to audiobooks, watching YouTube videos, reading blogs, and finding every other way to gather the knowledge and skills to achieve excellence. They keep up with trends, competition, customers, and the general business environment. 

This allows them to make prudent business decisions based on facts, data, and analysis. Acting this way, they set an example for others to follow and create a learning culture in the organization.

3. Vision

I will defer here to my dear friend Oleg Konovalov. Oleg is one of the world’s top leadership experts who has written extensively about visionary leadership. Some of his key thoughts on visionary leadership include:

  • Visionary leadership involves creating a compelling vision of the future that inspires and motivates others to act toward its realization.
  • Visionary leaders can see beyond the current reality and envision a significantly different and better future.
  • Visionary leaders can communicate their vision in a way that inspires and engages others; they can rally people around a common cause.
  • Visionary leaders are often unconventional thinkers willing to take risks and challenge the status quo to achieve their vision.
  • Visionary leaders can build a strong team of individuals aligned with their vision and committed to achieving it.
  • Visionary leaders can adapt to changing circumstances and adjust their vision accordingly while maintaining a clear sense of direction.
  • Visionary leaders can inspire a sense of purpose and meaning in their followers and create a culture that supports and reinforces their vision.

Overall, Konovalov believes that visionary leadership is a powerful force for change and transformation and that it has the potential to inspire and motivate people to achieve great things.

4. Communication

Everyone expects a leader to be able to articulate their vision and strategy clearly and inspire and motivate their team to work towards a common goal. That’s a given. You will only be an effective leader if you can do this. 

In addition, a leader must ask great questions and be an intense listener. They need to show that they are curious. They ask for ideas, input, feedback, and suggestions. They’re constantly pushing and probing to learn more. 

Then, they focus entirely on the other person. They make that person the center of their universe while they’re talking. Not looking at their phone, watch, or computer. They remove all distractions to show the other person what they say is important. They create an environment where everyone feels heard and valued.

An important factor in creating this environment is infusing it with psychological safety.

Harvard professor Amy Edmondson is a prominent scholar and researcher on psychological safety. Her work has contributed significantly to our understanding of the concept. 

Some of the key ideas from her research include:

Psychological safety is a shared belief. 

According to Edmondson, psychological safety is not just an individual characteristic but a shared belief that members of a team or organization hold about the safety of interpersonal risk-taking.

Psychological safety promotes learning. 

When team members feel safe to express their ideas, ask questions, and admit mistakes, they are more likely to engage in learning and experimentation, which can lead to better outcomes and innovation.

Psychological safety is not the same as trust. 

While trust is essential to psychological safety, Edmondson argues that psychological safety goes beyond trust and includes a willingness to take interpersonal risks and speak up about concerns or problems.

Leaders play a crucial role in creating psychological safety. 

Leaders are responsible for creating a culture that promotes psychological safety by setting the tone for open communication, modeling vulnerability, and creating norms that support risk-taking and learning.

Psychological safety is vital for high-performing teams.

Research has shown that teams with high levels of psychological safety tend to be more innovative, productive, and engaged and can better manage complex tasks and adapt to changing circumstances.

Great communicators also understand the importance of nonverbal communication, such as body language and tone of voice. They can convey confidence and sincerity, and they can adapt their communication style to the needs and preferences of their audience. They are clear and concise and use language that is easy to understand.

In addition, they use different communication channels effectively, such as email, phone, video conferencing, and in-person meetings. They can choose the right channel and use technology to enhance communication and collaboration with their team members.

5. Collaboration

Great leaders are great team players. They work well with and through other people. 

When necessary, they roll up their sleeves and get shoulder-to-shoulder with their team members to solve a problem. They don’t ask anyone on the team to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. They strive to create strong, collaborative, high-performance teams and be an excellent team member.

To understand what it takes to be a great team member, let’s look at the opposite side of the coin. 

Patrick Lencioni wrote an excellent book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which explores the common challenges that teams face and provides guidance on overcoming them. Here is a brief overview of the five dysfunctions of a team:

Absence of trust.

This dysfunction occurs when team members are unwilling or unable to be vulnerable with one another. Team members may avoid admitting their weaknesses or mistakes, hindering effective communication and collaboration.

Fear of conflict. 

This dysfunction occurs when team members avoid constructive debate and discussion, often because they fear conflict or feel unsafe expressing their opinions. This can lead to groupthink, lack of innovation, and unresolved issues.

Lack of commitment. 

This dysfunction occurs when team members do not fully buy into the team’s goals and decisions. This can result in ambiguity, a lack of accountability, and a lack of focus on achieving shared objectives.

Avoidance of accountability. 

This dysfunction occurs when team members do not hold each other accountable for their actions and decisions. This can lead to low standards, unmet expectations, and a lack of responsibility.

Inattention to results.

This dysfunction occurs when team members prioritize their individual goals over the team’s goals or do not measure and track progress toward shared objectives. This can result in a lack of focus on achieving results and undermine the team’s overall success.

Since Patrick identifies trust as the foundational element, let me take a moment to share with you a model I created for building trust as a leader.

There are three core elements to creating trust: competence, concern, and consistency.

High competence + low concern: This is someone who is brilliant but doesn’t care about other people. The word I use to describe this sort of leader is “respect.” I respect their skills and ability but do not trust them because they only care about themselves.

Low competence + low concern: This is someone who is incompetent and doesn’t care about others. This is not a winning combination. There is no trust here whatsoever. The person can’t do their job well and doesn’t get along with other team members. This is a “leader” that no one wants to follow.

High concern + low competence: The word I use here is “affection.” I love this person. They are kind and thoughtful. I would go to their house for a barbecue. But I don’t want them to lead my team. As nice as they are, they can’t get the job done well. And when this happens, the other team members usually have to go behind them and clean up the mess.

High competence + high concern: This is the ideal leader. They take their job seriously. They’re always trying to improve. They show genuine care and respect for other team members. You trust them because they are highly skilled and deeply committed to the team.

A leader that you trust consistently demonstrates that they are competent, and they care. They show people daily, “I’m good at what I do, and I do it because I care about you.”

6. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s own emotions, as well as recognize and understand the emotions of others. A high EQ is essential for effective leadership because it enables leaders to relate to others, communicate effectively, and make better decisions. 

The core elements of EQ are:

Self-Awareness: The ability to recognize and understand one’s own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and values.

Self-Regulation: The ability to manage one’s own emotions and behaviors in response to different situations. This includes the ability to control impulses, manage stress, and adapt to changing circumstances.

Motivation: The drive and passion to achieve personal and organizational goals. Individuals with high EQ are able to set goals, work towards them with enthusiasm, and persist in the face of setbacks.

Empathy: The ability to recognize and understand the emotions of others and to respond with compassion and concern. This includes seeing situations from another’s perspective and communicating effectively with people of different backgrounds and personalities.

Social Skills: The ability to build and maintain positive relationships with others. This includes effective communication, collaboration, conflict resolution, and leadership.

By developing these key elements of EQ, individuals can improve their personal and professional relationships, increase their effectiveness as leaders, and enhance their overall quality of life.

7. Adaptability Quotient

We live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. To survive in this challenging environment, leaders must develop their Adaptability Quotient (AQ). 

AQ refers to the ability to drive change, learn new skills, and thrive in a rapidly changing environment. In addition to increasing their personal AQ, leaders need to create agile, nimble, and innovative organizations. 

The key elements of AQ include:

Mental flexibility: The ability to adjust one’s thinking and behavior in response to changing circumstances. This includes being open-minded, willing to consider different perspectives, and adaptable in one’s approach to problem-solving.

Resilience: The ability to bounce back from setbacks and challenges. Resilient individuals are able to persevere in the face of adversity and maintain a positive outlook.

Continuous learning: The willingness to continuously learn and acquire new skills. Individuals with high AQ are committed to personal and professional development and are willing to invest time and resources in learning new things.

Emotional intelligence: The ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions, as well as understand and respond effectively to the emotions of others. Emotionally intelligent individuals are able to build strong relationships, navigate complex social situations, and communicate effectively with others.

Creativity: The ability to think outside the box and generate innovative ideas. Creative individuals are able to come up with novel solutions to problems and identify new opportunities for growth and success.

However, it is critical to balance adaptability and agility with thoughtfulness and prudent decision-making. Speed wins. Fast foolishness loses.

8. Strategic Planning

Great leaders are strategic thinkers. They see the big picture. They understand that success does not happen overnight and develop long-term strategies to achieve their vision. They can analyze data and market trends to recognize unique opportunities. 

Here are the five levels to being a strong strategic thinker:

Solid business acumen: Studying general business topics, competitive intelligence, industry advancements, and changing consumer behaviors.

Personal experience: Comparing all of the things they are learning to the knowledge they have gained with years of experience in the business world.

Pattern recognition: Combining business acumen and personal experience, they look for trends and patterns to anticipate where the market is going.

Strategic insight: Once they have identified trends, the leader develops the necessary strategies and goals to create competitive differentiation.

Disciplined execution: The best strategies and plans in the world are only useful if effectively executed.

9. Courage

Great leaders are willing to take risks. They make big, bold bets. They are often called upon to make difficult decisions that significantly impact their organization. They are decisive in the face of consequential decisions. Their courage gives others confidence.

However, leaders must also be courageous enough to be vulnerable. To admit that they don’t have all the answers, admit their mistakes, acknowledge their weaknesses, and show their human side to their team members. 

Vulnerable business leaders can connect with their team members on a deeper level, build trust, and foster a culture of openness and transparency.

10. Passion

Passionate leaders are deeply committed to their organization and its mission and communicate that commitment with energy and enthusiasm. 

They create a sense of purpose and meaning for their team members and help them connect their work to the overall mission and vision of the organization. They inspire their people to pursue excellence and deliver greatness.

But this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily a cheerleader. Some great leaders are highly motivational. Some great leaders are quiet, humble, and even introverted. However, their passion and dedication to the organization inspire those around them.

John Spence is a keynote speaker, consultant, and executive coach, who was named by the American Management Association as one of America’s Top 50 Leaders to Watch along with Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.  He is the author of the acclaimed book on business excellence, Awesomely Simple.

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