12 Most Essential Leadership Traits

12 Most Essential Leadership Traits

It’s easy to spot a clueless leader, someone with so little skill and aptitude for the job it’s painful for the people who work for him or her. If current reports on employment trends are to be believed – and I think they are – more than 80 percent of employees would move to a new job today if they could (and that number comes from a recent survey by Manpower. I did not make it up.)

Why are so many ready to make the jump? They pretty much hate their jobs, and a lot of that has to do with leadership – or lack thereof – at their current places of employment. Yet with hiring sometimes at a standstill or delay, the economy slipping sometimes into a deeper tank and real wages at 70s levels (even the clothes look like the 70s), there’s nowhere to go – and managers know it. That’s why the ever-popular 12 hour day is back, why control freaks are in charge, why training and enrichment sometimes feel like a myth. Don’t even get me started on performance appraisals and raises. So last millennium. We have hope that the economy will make a full recovery so let’s take advantage of this time to empower leaders.

Which leads me to why people frustrated and disheartened by the management at their current jobs need to start thinking about what they are looking for in a leader now. It’s time to reflect on essential leadership traits and build a job hunt/career path around finding an employer/leader with at least seven of these traits. It’s a start.

Here are 12 traits I think are essential:

1. Intelligence – both IQ and EQ

No one wants to work for a dummy. Everyone wants to be in continuous learning mode. Provide a smart platform for your people. When your boss is a bit slow on the uptake it’s difficult to sustain motivation. Worse are those with low emotional intelligence. You can almost forgive someone who’s a bit dull – after all, they were probably born that way – but someone who lacks emotional intelligence – the native ability to manage themselves and their relationships effectively – can crush your soul. The worst.

2. Focus

Leaders should have the gift of focus, and the ability to turn that focus to the right problem at the right time. We’re not talking about how long a person can play Angry Birds without losing a game – we’re talking about someone who knows how to get work done. A leader also needs to get his or her people to focus on the right things. Focusing as an individual requires motivation; focusing a group requires creating a culture of accountability – our next leadership trait.

3. Accountability

At the end of the day (don’t you cringe when people say that?) the leader must be the most accountable person in the company. No blaming others (as so many do) for troubles; if it happened on your watch, you’re accountable. So act like it.

4. Motivation

This can be intrinsic, when the leader is self-aware, or extrinsic, when the leader is motivated by rewards. If a leader tilts to the former you’re in good shape. If it’s the latter, it’s 1999 all over again.

5. Competitive

Part motivation, part focus, part resolve – a leader should be competitive because building a successful business means looking at the competition and deciding to beat them at their own game. Look for a leader who played hockey in college or who takes parts in every women’s leadership marathon known to be – they’re relentless competitors. It’s a long distance race to stay fresh and in the game.

6. Authentic

Authenticity is a bit squishy as a leadership attribute, but it’s still important. You can tell when someone is for real, and when they’re faking it. Stay away from the fakers – customers can spot them at 100 years, and the company will go nowhere.

7. Trustworthy

If a leader says he or she will do something, you should be able to trust it will be done. This is not ‘have three drinks and tell them your life story’ trustworthiness – this is trust them to manage the company well.

8. Able to Solve Problems

it’s amazing how many people can’t break a problem down into its component pieces and solve the puzzle. When leaders punt on solving a problem (anyone come to mind from current events?) you can be sure they’re an ineffective leader.

9. Able to Delegate

Leaders are not supposed to do all the work themselves. They’re supposed to delegate, and trust employees to follow through. If you think (or hear) a leader is a micromanager, head for the door.

10. Able to Listen

Listening is a lost art. Everyone listens to the first half of a sentence and then starts talking. They miss the point, of course. If a leader tries to trump what you’re saying by hijacking the conversation and making the discussion about them rather than listening to what’s being said, it’s a lost cause. You have our permission to head for the hills.

11. Compassion

This trait is so under-rated and not part of the curriculum at top Business-schools, but it’s a critical skill. Turns out leaders really do need to feel your pain (at least insofar as it affects the future of the company.) I’m a believer that compassionate leadership is real and completely possible.

12. Resolve

A leader must be resolute. Totally committed to the task at hand, committed to the people who work for you, determined to make it work. Wishy-washy leaders don’t get things done. They leave employees feeling leaderless and confused. Be resolute, or watch employees leave. Do not wait until it’s too late.

Leadership is a responsibility. It’s no joke. What leadership traits do you look for?

Image of The American Worker by Michael Florin Dente, courtesy of Jeff Kubina. Used under creative commons, some rights reserved.

Meghan M. Biro


Meghan M. Biro is a globally recognized leader in talent strategy and a pioneer in building the business case for brand humanization. Founder of TalentCulture and a serial entrepreneur, Meghan creates successful ventures by navigating the complexities of career and workplace branding. In her practice as a social recruiter and strategist, Meghan has placed hundreds of individuals with clients ranging from Fortune 500s to the most innovative software start-up companies in the world, including Google, Microsoft and emerging companies in the social technology and media marketplace. Meghan is an accomplished consultant who has helped hundreds of individuals in all levels in the organization (V,C level executives, mid-career, mid-level managers, software architects and recent college graduates) and across generations (Gen Y to baby boomers), develop effective career strategies that propel them to achieve personal and professional success. Meghan is a speaker, practitioner, author, blogger and mentor who is passionate about the subjects of leadership, recruiting, workplace culture, social community, branding, and social media in HR. She is Founder and co-host of two Twitter Chats: "#TChat, The World of Work", a long-standing weekly chat and radio show and #HRTechChat, both communities dedicated to addressing the business needs of the rapidly evolving people-technology landscape. Meghan is an avid social community builder who is inspired by connecting the people and talent dots. Meghan is a regular columnist at Forbes and Glassdoor and her ideas are often quoted, featured on top publications such as CBS Moneywatch, Monster, Dice and various other HR, Social Media and Leadership hubs of your choice.

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A good list. I think number 8 is very important because a good leader can be a problem solver and decisive.


Nice to read this post:). Leaders need to have the proper leadership skills to be able to properly manage their employment for the company but they should also have the right attitude and behavior for they are individuals that their employees look up to. Mention above is the useful one. 


Thanks for mentioning both IQ and EQ in this post. In many instances, it's the ability to detect and manage nuances that sets good leaders apart from others.


Great post, Meghan - as always. I especially liked that you called out continuous learning, listening, and compassion. As @luissv stated in his comment, these are sometimes "forgotten values."

Leaders are also:

Courageous - Leaders exhibit courage by standing up for ideas, actions, and principles that they believe in - perhaps in the face of popular opposition or discouragement. This also means standing up for and being accountable for the actions of the people in their organization or enterprise.

Critical Thinkers - Leaders continuously apply critical thinking skills to what they do. They understand the importance of asking the right questions at the right time. They can separate the "noise" from the "signal" and distill answers down to the one that matters. This aligns with your "Focus" trait. They can bring a non-linear thinking perspective to issues that others see as linear-based challenges.

Inspirational - This addresses influence. Leadership is all about influencing (not controlling) and inspiring others to work together to achieve goals. Leaders may have to work with diverse communities whose common goals are not necessarily aligned in order to do this. Leaders also inspire others (as individuals or as a team, community, organization, or enterprise) to do more than they thought themselves capable of doing.

Team Builders - Leaders have a knack for finding the right people and putting those people in positions that maximize their skills and experience for good of the organization. Ideally, these people will be smarter than the leader in their functional disciplines. Their collective intelligence benefits the organization and the organization's mission.

Mentors - Simply put, leaders develop people for positions of increased responsibility. Next to getting things done (your "Able to solve problems" trait), this is another critical leadership trait. Leaders need to relish this trait and responsibility to be truly effective at it.

Selfless - At their core, leaders need to be selfless with a strong desire for service to others. This includes the people that they are responsible for within the organization as well as the people, customers, and communities that their organization serves outside of the organization.


Hi Meghan:

Trait theory is a valuable thing to study for both intrinsic and extrinsic purposes. That said, even good theory is still just theory. Anything applied in a vacuum can be dangerous, especially when it comes to the application of a particular trait as a driver of cultures, positions, solutions, or agendas. The key to bridging the chasm between trait theory and practical application is understanding, awareness and context. You might be interested in reading a complimentary piece which looks at this from a different angle: http://www.n2growth.com/blog/the-qualities-of-a-leader


I love this. I have so many real-life examples of how even missing one of these traits can absolutely take a great leader down to a good leader down to an ineffective leader. Nice and concise write-up. I will be sharing this info!

Dave (@dkragen)


Meghan WONDERFUL WORK! Powerful introduction, it's so true! how many people ready to make the jump?What could happen if every leader, follow this 12 traits, or at least a half of them? you write about forgotten values, like Compassion, and basics like Listening, that I would like to add one more BE HUMBLE, use your gratitude every day, understanding there is always something to learn, and someone who can teach you. Wake up willing to learn...Congratulations and really thank you for sharing with us your acknowledgement and sensibility.Hugs



I love these Meghan! Compassion comes up so often in Lisa Petrilli & Steve Woodruff's #leadershipchat. To a point, "weakness" can actually make you look stronger. You're not afraid to show your softer side because you know that you have enough strength to bounce right back. My man Abraham Lincoln had this trait in spades.

As Ted Coiné wrote earlier this week, too, you need to be able to talk to your people. They need to feel like you are present, and you need to understand what they are going through. Are "leaders" aware that so many people are disenchanted? Based on the show Undercover Boss, I would say probably not, sadly.

Spencer McDonald
Spencer McDonald

These are excellent tips for any leader. I also would add the ability to ask questions in an effort to lead other to where they should be. This method comes from Socrates. Help others to be empowered and they lift you to a higher leadership level.


In light of recent events at HP, it seems that great leaders also need a supportive network! Leaders are only as strong as the support they have from their team. Even following this list to the letter can still bring uncertain results in uncertain times. For me, I believe that leadership can exist at any level, and leading without a title is the first step towards earning one. I love this list because of what it says about great leaders, but also because of what it says about great people.


This is a great post - can I add one?

I like empathy to find its way onto any list 1 or more that discusses essential leadership.

Otherwise I think you have hit a lot of great points. Accountability really resonates with me as I feel too many people try to avoid it.

Great post Meghan - as always :)


Yeah! I get to be the first to comment on this GREAT list! If ONLY more of our leaders - public and private sector - would read and DO at least the majority, if not all of these! I might add one more - a light touch/sense of humor can really help is stressful times, too!


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