Five Characteristics of Great Leaders

By Cathy McCullough

leadership characteristics

dateThu, Dec 19, 2019 @ 11:03 AM

If we think about it, ‘excellence’ or being ‘great’ at anything is truly a lifelong endeavor. Whether leadership characteristicsstriving to become one of the greatest athletes of all time, or one of the most revered musicians in history, or one of the most respected artists of all time, excellence is a quest. Successful leaders work on their skills continuously over their careers to go from a good leader to a great leader.

Just about every list on how to be a great leader encompasses a cadre of characteristics. Indeed, mounds of research on great leadership show us that the skill of being able to effortlessly connect with people on a very human level can make a magnitude of difference to the bottom-line of any business, and it’s this ability to connect that becomes the catalytic mechanism for success. It’s foundational to great leadership. The prerequisite to this pursuit of leadership excellence is a personal passion for the quest itself. The core requirements, then, are an extreme amount of focus, perseverance, and resilience.

Great leaders are, first and foremost, masters of personal accountability. They instill the right kind of accountability within their organizations by first holding themselves accountable because they honestly believe that the cultural artifact of accountability begins with themselves. How, then, do they reach leadership excellence? Here are a few first steps to jump-start your journey.

What are the characteristics of a great leader? How do I start?

(1) Start with Personal Clarity. Ask yourself a key question, which is, “Do I want to be a Well-Meaning Leader, a Good Leader, or a Great Leader?" There’s no right or wrong answer. Each of these can create companies that make a ton of money. Well-meaning leadership will get you that. Good leadership will propel your company to even higher levels of success, and you’ll be seen as someone who really puts in a lot of effort, as you’ll always be busy with work. Great leadership, though, is something you simply have to have a passion for accomplishing. It’s a study of effectiveness over efficiency; it’s a study of discipline; it’s a study of trust; it’s a study of the human psyche. So first, be sure to get really clear on what you as a leader really want to be: A Well-Meaning, Good, or Great Leader. What leadership qualities do I posses?


  • Make a thoughtful decision that can only come from a time of personal reflection. Which kind of leader do you want to be?
  • What are you doing well that you might want to leverage for a higher-level impact?
  • From there, what are you doing today that might be getting in your way? How might you be getting in everyone else’s way? Where are you possibly causing confusion?
  • Write your own Leadership Statement of Purpose. Does this definition align with a Well-Meaning Leader, a Good Leader, or a Great Leader?

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(2) Follow Personal Clarity with a Heightened Sense of Discipline. Discipline is every bit as much of an essence about you as it is an action. I’ve been privileged to have served as Executive Coach to a lot of leaders, most of whom have the desire to be truly great leaders. Without a doubt, the #1 characteristic that most of them struggle to obtain is discipline. You can’t have discipline, though, if you aren’t clear about what you’re doing, and why.

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Discipline means working to change how you think. For instance, we tend to think: "If I’m busy, I’m doing great!” In reality, being busy is a misnomer we’ve allowed to latch on to our definition of success. We tend to go on auto-pilot and tell ourselves that if we’re busy (or better yet, if we’re “So busy!”) we’re doing awesome things. It’s another way of telling those around us, “The place can’t run without me!”…so we run from one internal meeting to the next, we insert ourselves into all kinds of daily fire-fighting, we schedule meetings as if they’re candy. Great leadership is not like being a kid in a candy store, with every single minute of every day scheduled with the ‘sweetness’ of a complex calendar overload. Being busy is an addiction. Truth is, many leaders simply don’t know how to go about the shift from complexity to simplicity. That’s the shift that requires discipline. It’s a shift that requires scaling down a “to do” list to the most important few and delegating the rest. It’s a shift from not trusting those around you to believing in their capabilities to the point that you realize they’re actually better without your constant presence.


  • Make a list of everything you do. Look at your calendar as a clue. Then, think about all the other things you do that you cram into that already crowded landscape. (I’ve had more than one Executive Coachee whose lists of duties end up being multiple pages.)
  • Review your list and circle the items that are most truly relevant to you. Your circled items can be a combination of things you feel you must do in your current leadership role as well as things that you actually would like to keep doing. This is, then, your core job description.
  • Of everything else on the list, what can you delegate, and to whom? (This is a slow ship to turn many times because your intrusion into every little thing throughout each and every day has not taught people to think without you being right there. So delegate, but don’t abdicate. You need to teach people how to think strategically, how to make decisions without having to go through you, etc. This new habit takes a while, so nurture the leaders around you. Grow them to do what you’re used to doing, and let them do it even better than you ever did or ever could do.

(3) Relentlessly Assess Yourself. Well-meaning leaders never truly assess their leadership skills and traits. Good leaders might try informal ways of assessing themselves, and while well-intended, the information gained really doesn’t assure its validity. Great leaders, however, relentlessly assess themselves. They understand that having the passion to increase their leadership effectiveness isn’t all about them. It’s about the company, too, and more importantly it’s about the people around them and the impact they have on those people. Being a good or a great leader will require you to measure the degree to which you’re having the impact you hope to have. In most cases, the first thing a Coachee and I partner to do when entering an Executive Coaching engagement is a Leadership 360 Assessment process. How else can you improve your leadership process? I admit: Doing a Leadership 360 isn’t for the faint of heart; the collective feedback you receive can hit you hard. But growth is hard. If you’re aspiring to move from a well-meaning leader or good leader to a great leader, your ego can expect a few hits. How you respond to those hits and your positive attitude is what matters.


  • Reach outside your comfort zone and hold yourself accountable for working with an Executive Coach.
  • Read, and then read some more. Articles, books, magazines, journals, etc. The key insights can become guidelines for learning—and then ask yourself: How good am I at translating what I’m learning into my everyday leadership? Where am I doing well? What do I need to do differently?

leadership characteristics

(4) Pay Attention to Your Impact. When you’re in a room, everything shifts. Ideas you share can be interpreted as commands and/or your suggestions become mandates for action. Your presence can even cause a group of people to freeze, because they will default to you for the decision that needs to be made.


  • Ask yourself: Do I even need to be in this meeting?
  • Don’t focus so much on what you say. Instead, focus on how you say it.
  • Step back and get out of your people’s way. Delegate, with decision-making authority.
  • When someone asks what they should do to solve a problem, don’t tell them what to do. Instead, ask questions to guide them toward a potential solution.

(5) Focus on Results and Relationships. All in all, leadership isn’t easy. It’s not about what you do; it’s about how you show up. Leadership isn’t about results or relationships. It’s about results and relationships. The degree to which you exude trust in the capabilities of those around you, the degree to which you delegate with authority, the degree to which you give definition to strategic goals and actions, the degree to which you yourself exhibit the Core Values of your organization—all of these are about fostering relationships with the human beings around you.


  • Make time to be a resource for your people. By doing so, you become a coach yourself (vs. a boss or the CEO or the COO).
  • Simplify complexity for those around you. Operationalize your Annual Priorities into Quarterly chunks (i.e., specific Quarterly Priorities, then Individual Priorities, etc.).
  • Focus on connection. Instead of always running ahead of people, slow down a bit…and walk with them. Recognize that as a leader, it isn’t about you. It’s about everyone around you. Schedule time for walking around simply to get to know your people. Listen to them; learn from them; champion their ideas; foster truth and transparency; relate to them; share stories.

Being a great leader will serve as food for your own soul, but it will also inject your company with a healthy, entrepreneurial culture that is mission-driven, adaptable, and consistent, where engagement and employee involvement thrives (and therefore drives) your organization toward its strategic aspirations.

Remember, too, that how people perceive you matters to the bottom-line. According to an executive-level study conducted by Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm, 44% of your company’s market value is attributed to the reputation of its leaders (especially the CEO). Leadership, then, is a resource worth investing in. Let it begin with you focusing on your ability to lead an accountable team to success!

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Want to read other blogs on leadership written by our Execution Experts? Check out the blogs below:

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5 Leadership Development Tips to Transform High Potential Employees into Leaders

Strategic Leadership Vs. Tactical Leadership: Which Management Style Are You?

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The 5 C's of Leadership & Accountability

Developing Accountable Leadership: From Aspiration to Reality

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Cathy McCullough


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images