9 Traits of Exceptional Leaders

Truly great leaders are hard to come by, but it seems everyone thinks they’re one. A true leader, however, is easy to spot. On that same note, it’s also easy to spot someone who isn’t quite up to the level they pretend to be. Defining the difference between the two is also fairly easy, but what happens when you ask people what makes a great leader? Oftentimes, they aren’t really sure.

The fact is, there are many ways to be a good leader, and each leader will have different attributes. That being said, the greatest leaders are considered the best because they exhibit the following elements of leadership:


Leaders who aren’t passionate aren’t very likely to be successful. Any salesperson will tell you it’s impossible to sell something you don’t believe in, and that includes ideas. Want to be a leader in photosynthetic research on cyanobacteria? You had better be absolutely enthralled with photosynthesis. Ironically, discovering their passion is something that many people struggle with, which is why we’re so drawn to those who have found theirs.


The idea here isn’t to have respect for authority. It’s to have respect for those people you have authority over. Bad things can happen when leaders stop respecting the people they lead, but we’re not here for a history lesson.

One of the keys, though, is that once a leader stops respecting those under him, he don’t only lose respect for them. They also lose respect for him. How often are you willing to go the extra distance for someone you don’t respect? About zero percent of the time, right? Yeah, that’s kind of an issue.


Authenticity can’t be faked. If you’re a genuine person, your beliefs match up with how you live your life. You can fake it for a little bit, but people are hardwired to read each other. Steve Jobs, for example, was an authentic person. He knew what he wanted, and he stuck to his guns to get it. This had the effect of encouraging others to respect him, and to want to earn his respect.


If you’re authentic, it makes it very difficult not to be honest with everyone – yourself included. However, self-awareness usually comes with a price, and that involves knowing what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at.

Being self-aware will help you choose to work with people who complement you. Don’t aim to only hire people who are good at the same things you are. Hire people who can cover some bases you can’t.


Ok, communication isn’t necessarily only for leaders, but we’re assuming that leaders are probably talking to more people than the average Joe. One of my professors said once that the stupidest thing a person can ever do is assume that communication has been achieved. The idea is that if you say the same thing to five people, they will interpret it a minimum of five ways. Good communication is how leaders attract people to their cause.


We all know that middle-manager who loads up employees with huge amounts of work and overtime, then takes all the credit when bonuses and congratulations are handed out. It’s easy to let power get to your head, and people who are in power have to fight that. Staying humble enables you to stay connected to the business at the roots.


Punishing people for the same things you do is not only unfair, it’s also pretty stupid. Any decent leader (or parent, for that matter) is very much aware of how playing favorites can backfire. This idea is, of course, more obvious when dealing with children, and it’s something that new teachers learn pretty quickly too.

Along with avoiding favoritism, leaders should treat themselves fairly too. No one likes to admit mistakes, but when your boss admits to screwing something up, it makes everyone else feel like they can try something a little risky too. In order to keep innovation on the upswing, you need people willing to take risks, and no one will do that if they’ll be dealt with unfairly.


Leaders hold themselves accountable and expect the same of their employees. If they drop the ball, they own up to it. On the same token, they expect others to do the same. They expect people to own up to blame, but they also expect credit to be given where it’s due.

Lead by Example

Good leaders don’t bark orders all the time. Instead, they’ll simply act the same way they expect others to act. If they want people to actually do what they say they’ll do, they also do it. If they want people to be innovative, leaders let people know about their failures. The best way to encourage change is from the top down, and they work that simple idea to their advantage.

The Big Picture

Bosses shouldn’t micromanage. Some do, of course, and we all kind of loathe them for it. The whole idea of having someone working under you is to take some of the load off – and that’s why you shouldn’t see leaders worrying about this week’s budget or an employee who came in late.

Leaders are in charge of choosing the direction everyone is going, and the only way to do that is to look at the big picture, and allow everyone to do their jobs as best they can.

Sarah Landrum

Sarah Landrum is a freelance writer and blogger sharing advice on career development, leadership, and finding happiness and success at work and in life. Catch Sarah on Twitter @SarahLandrum and be sure to subscribe to the Punched Clocks newsletter for more great tips.

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