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The Top Traits of Successful Leaders: A Closer Look at Leadership as a Trait

effective leadership leadership values
An illustration of an office leader who is looking for something through his monucular.

It’s an age-old question. We recognize these individuals when we see them. Their leadership qualities are evident. We wonder if successful leaders are born or created. Some ask what leadership skills define these people. The importance of leadership as a trait is undeniable. Research even supports its correlation with financial outcomes.

However, it goes beyond the balance sheet. Leadership is an integral driver of morale and job satisfaction, with implications for employee attrition, talent retention, and the culture of collaboration. American scholar Warren Bennis defined leadership as “…the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Therefore, it’s imperative to flesh out this concept with today’s challenges in mind.

The Trait Theory of Leadership

Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle fueled the discussion in the mid-1800s with his Great Man Theory. Carlyle posited that great men made history. Past events provided ample evidence to support his assertion. He reasoned that history contained similar stories where cause and effect showed certain traits that led to successful outcomes. Moreover, some individuals are born with these vital traits.

The theory may have made sense at the time, but it falls short of explaining the critical leadership qualities that separate good and great leaders. Psychology offers a scientific approach with Gordon Allport’s Trait Theory. It describes personalities based on the various attributes a person possesses. They, in turn, may determine an individual’s behavior or simply describe someone.

The Trait Theory of Leadership takes Allport’s work one step further. It provides a more concrete definition that encompasses attributes many equate with leadership potential. We can point to obvious examples, such as self-confidence, ambition, and business acumen. Researchers considered this question with the level of leadership.

Not surprisingly, intelligence and trustworthiness ranked highest among the study’s participants. The interesting twist was the varying degrees of importance depending on the leadership level. The Trait Theory of Leadership highlights one of its shortcomings: the lengthy list of desirable attributes. Its simplicity raises the bar for leadership as a trait to an unrealistic expectation.

This assessment has two takeaway messages. First, a leader can’t be all things to all employees in all situations. If you think of the successful individuals of the past, like Abraham Lincoln or Napoleon, they had a razor focus in one area. Traits like problem-solving skills or critical thinking may be universal and well-implemented by these people. The success comes from the situational component in each case.

Second, the traits that define effective leadership vary without a single blueprint applicable all the time. For example, the qualities a health professional needs on the job differ widely from those of a software company’s CEO. The wisdom comes from knowing which ones are crucial for being successful in your field.


The Top Traits of Successful Leaders

Successful leaders share several qualities. Some are seemingly innate but inevitably a product of childhood, education, and socioeconomic factors. Everyone has the capacity to learn from obstacles and mistakes. It’s another matter of how an individual responds and if they learn from them. This capacity to move on forms the foundation.

As author David Thomas states, leaders are “…90 percent made, maybe even more.”

Science supports this assertion from a biological point of view. Clarity and communication are vital leadership skills. Researchers looked at interpersonal neural synchronization (INS) between these individuals and their employees. Their findings show a physical response that can identify these superior communicators.

Neuroplasticity describes the ability of the brain to reorganize itself based on experience and learning. Taken together, this information makes a compelling case for the value of leadership development in individuals with a willingness and drive to hone their skills. The next question is, what are the top traits of successful leaders worth cultivating and nurturing?


Emotional Intelligence

Kumar et al. developed the three domain leadership model that provides a roadmap for developing leadership as a trait. Skill attainment begins at the individual level, progressing to team-building, and finally toward the external and situational factors affecting an organization. The key to this process is the first domain, which highlights the importance of emotional intelligence.

Retired AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf’s theory of servant leadership provides an excellent framework for understanding its elements and its further implementation in the workplace. Emotional intelligence involves self-awareness of one’s emotions and using them to handle your behavior and thinking. This understanding also helps you recognize the perspective others have in similar situations.

The pandemic taught us the importance of mental health issues. It also was a wake-up call to reassess our work-life balance. Organizations now recognize empathy as one of the most leadership traits. Individuals with this quality stand out as emotionally intelligent leaders, such as Winston Churchill and Princess Diana.


Communication Skills

We’ve touched on the importance of good communication. Underscoring this leadership trait is clarity. Employees must have a clear understanding of management’s expectations and their roles. Unfortunately, according to the Gallup State of the Workplace Report, less than 40 percent of workers feel that’s the case in their positions.

Good communication comes in many forms. It involves ensuring every person knows the vision and objectives of their organization. It means checking in with staff members frequently. After all, it’s the single best way to prevent minor issues from becoming major problems. Another vital component is a psychologically safe workplace that encourages open communication. A good leader sets the pace.


Vision and Strategic Planning

The most successful leaders let their vision guide them and their choices. It is the fuel to their fire. As American inventor E. Joseph Cossman said, “Obstacles are things a person sees when he takes his eyes off his goal.” Perseverance in the face of adversity keeps these individuals moving forward. It’s hard to underestimate the power of staying the course and how it can motivate employees.

Strategic planning is smart planning. Great leaders know their weaknesses. However, they don’t view them as failings. Instead, this self-awareness allows them to build stronger teams by knowing what gaps they must fill. Delegating tasks to others fosters a culture of collaboration. A vital part of leadership as a trait is nurturing talent in their staff.

Therefore, successful strategic planning means putting the best person on the job. That brings self-confidence and emotional maturity to the forefront. Examples of leaders who have embodied these traits include visionaries like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller. They lived the ambition of following their dreams, which they had to draw the maps.


Decision Making

Leaders face countless decisions every day. Some are inconsequential ,whereas others may have profound implications. Sound decision making is nothing short of art. It brings together critical thinking, problem-solving, logic, and visualization to choose the best path based on the available information. It also involves the domain of external and situational factors.

Self confidence also comes into play, especially when dealing with elements outside of one’s control. It compels great leaders to anticipate and visualize outcomes. Industry knowledge and work experience are excellent teachers. However, it’s also necessary for them to view scenarios outside of their vision. These individuals don’t don blinders.

Another critical part of decision making involves the hard truths. Lesser leaders shun these situations or kick the proverbial can down the road. The great ones face them head-on with the self confidence and courage they possess. Tony Blair said it best. “The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.”

Not everyone can count it as one of their innate abilities. That’s part of what makes great leaders stand out from the crowd. Individuals like Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump are well aware of the difficulty some decisions carry. Their vision allows them to make the best choice, even if it’s the hardest one.


Mentorship and Coaching

Great leaders understand the burden of knowledge. If you have it, you are morally obligated to share it. It’s essential for the growth of the organization and its employees. It’s also vital for developing a succession plan. You can think of it as a component of the long-term health of a company and its mission to maintain consistency.

Mentoring allows new hires and managers to learn under the tutelage of a proven leader. It’s an excellent form of on-the-job training that textbooks don’t teach students. Life in the trenches is often a different scenario than a case study without the real-time deadlines, unintended consequences, and conflicts that make leaders shine.

Coaching and leadership development raise awareness on a different level. Many aspects of leadership are common sense—if someone points it out to you. They provide these insights to individuals without the experience to identify them in situ. A good leader draws upon their own struggles and helps others navigate these unfamiliar waters.

They also do it willingly and unselfishly because of their self confidence.


Adaptability and Flexibility

Adaptability and flexibility empower leaders to respond to internal and external changes while maintaining consistency. The latter involves adhering to an organization’s mission and planning. Even if circumstances force a different strategy, the end goal remains the same, albeit on a slightly divergent path.

Consistency provides stability, which can, in turn, build trust within an organization. Employees know what to expect from leadership. That can help combat several preventable sources of organizational stress, many of which arise from uncertainty. However, it goes hand-in-hand with agility. Again, we must look back to the life lessons of the pandemic. Agility is a survival skill in today’s business world.

Adaptability and flexibility also help leaders remain open to the new ideas their employees may bring to the table. The dogmatic days of vertical management must give way to the creativity of its best resource: a company’s people. Individuals draw different boundaries for their respective boxes. Tapping into the creative energy of an organization removes the barriers to innovation.


Developing Leadership Traits

Leaders develop self confidence by doing. Support is vital for creating a safe environment to take chances. Likewise, they must foster a workplace where creativity is valued. Trust is a two-way street. Leaders must earn it with consistency, empathy, and integrity. Remember that trustworthiness is one of the most desirable traits employees want to see in their employers. That must be a priority.

Investing in training is a must-do for organizations. The pool of valued perks has changed. While a higher salary is a powerful incentive, so too is having the skills to do one’s job the best that they can. Roughly 94 percent of employees place training in the pro column for staying with an employer. However, that doesn’t just mean the direct reports. Managers and leaders will also benefit from learning opportunities.

John F. Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” That’s a soft skill all good leaders understand. You can’t succeed in these roles unless you’re willing to become a lifelong learner. Life doesn’t stand still. Neither should a leader’s skill set. Leadership development is imperative for nurturing people to grow your organization.



Viewing leadership as a trait allows organizations to understand and cultivate what’s needed to keep them vibrant and relevant. Companies must embrace the power that adaptability and flexibility afford them. Their security and keys to growth exist with their leaders. Therefore, it pays to invest in the asset that can ensure its long-term viability.

Great leaders can help people weather crises, whether on a national level or within an organization. They are the glue that holds organizations together through hard times and fuels their growth when things are fairable. Society has benefited from born leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It has also advanced from individuals who have learned through the school of hard knocks.

Circumstances and willpower have given the world great leaders to inspire generations, such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and John F. Kennedy. Leadership can be cultivated, making these individuals rise to the top. Leadership development is an investment in an organization’s future. Kutsko Consulting can help you nurture future leaders in your company with its coaching courses to realize your potential.









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