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Leadership Qualities: Do You Possess the Qualities of an Effective Leader?

If you want to silence a room of people, ask this question:  Why would anyone want to be led by you? Certain qualities belong potentially to everyone, but leaders possess these qualities to an exceptional degree. The following is a discussion of 10 qualities that mark a leader and help influence people and events -- vision, ability, enthusiasm, stability, concern for others, self-confidence, persistence, vitality, charisma, and integrity1.

  1. Vision. The first requirement for a leader is a strong sense of purpose. A vision of what could and should be is a basic force that enables the leader to recognize what must be done and to do it. Vision inspires others and causes the leader to accept the duties of leadership, whether pleasant or unpleasant. A sense of vision is especially powerful when it embodies a common cause -- overcoming tyranny, stamping out hunger, or improving the human condition. Examples of leadership vision and its power can be seen in computer pioneer Steve Jobs, who foresaw a computer on every desktop and in every home, and in business entrepreneur Bill Gates, who asked the optimistic and compelling question, Where do you want to go today? Jobs of Apple and Gates of Microsoft have altered business and society in irreversible ways.

    If you are the leader of a workgroup or an organization, you should ask, Do I have a plan? What is my vision of what this department or organization should be? Rate yourself on Vision (low, average, high).
  2. Ability. The leader must know the job -- or invite loss of respect. It helps if the leader has done the job before and done it well. Employees seldom respect the individual who constantly must rely on others when making decisions, giving guidance, or solving problems. Although employees usually show a great deal of patience with a new leader, they will lose faith in someone who fails to gain an understanding of the job within a reasonable period of time. Job knowledge helps the leader make good decisions and discover ways to improve efficiency. Also, the leader must keep job knowledge current. Failure to keep up leads to a lack of confidence and loss of employee support. Finally, a leader must have a keen mind to understand information, formulate strategies, and make correct decisions2.

    Leaders should ask, How competent am I? Am I current in my field? Do I set an example and serve as a resource for my employees because I keep job knowledge current? Mentally, are my perceptions accurate, is my memory good, are my judgments sound? Rate yourself on Ability (low, average, high).
  3. Enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is an important trait of a good leader. Enthusiasm is a form of persuasiveness that causes others to become interested and willing to accept what the leader is attempting to accomplish. The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek word meaning "God within." Enthusiasm, like other human emotions -- laughter, joy, happiness -- is contagious. Enthusiasm shown by a leader generates enthusiasm in followers. As Harry Truman once said, "The successful man has enthusiasm. Good work is never done in cold blood; heat is needed to forge anything. Every great achievement is the story of a flaming heart."3

    If you are a leader, you must ask, Do I care personally and deeply about what I am doing? Do I show this to my employees? Does my enthusiasm ignite others to take action? Rate yourself on Enthusiasm (low, average, high).
  4. Stability. The leader must understand her or his own world and how it relates to the world of others. One cannot solve the equation of others when preoccupied with the equation of self. Empathy for employees cannot be developed if the leader is emotionally involved with personal problems. Problems with alcohol or drugs, problems with money, and problems with relationships are fertile fields for emotional instability. A display of emotional instability places the leader in a precarious position with regard to employees, because they will question the leader's objectivity and judgment. Leaving personal problems at home allows the leader to think more clearly and to perform more effectively on the job. One can see the consequences of loss of stability with examples ranging from the fall of Alexander the Great to the fall of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.

    The leader must ask, Do I possess objectivity? Do I convey stability to my employees? Do they trust that personal problems will not interfere with my judgment? Rate yourself on Stability (low, average, high).
  5. Concern for others. At the heart of caring leadership is a concern for others. The leader must not look down on others or treat them as machines -- replaceable and interchangeable. The leader must be sincerely and deeply concerned about the welfare of people. The character of caring stands in clear contrast to the character of bullying. The caring leader never tears down, belittles, or diminishes people. The leader must also possess humility and selflessness to the extent that, whenever possible, others' interests are considered first. Concern for others requires patience and listening, and the result is trust, the bedrock of loyalty. Loyalty to followers generates loyalty to the leader; and when tasks become truly difficult, loyalty carries the day.

    Leaders must question, Do I truly care about my employees as people, or do I view them more as tools to meet my goals? Do I ever demean people, or do I always lift them up? If I value my employees, do they know it? Rate yourself on Concern for Others (low, average, high).
  6. Self-confidence. Confidence in one's ability gives the leader inner strength to overcome difficult tasks. If leaders lack self-confidence, people may question their authority and may even disobey orders. Researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership have found that successful leaders remain calm and confident even during intense situations. By demonstrating grace under pressure, they inspire those around them to stay calm and act intelligently. According to football quarterback Roger Staubach, the key to self-confidence is how hard the leader works: "Confidence comes from hours, days, weeks, and years of preparation and dedication. When I'm in the last two minutes of a December playoff game, I'm drawing confidence from windsprints I did the previous March. It's just a circle: work and confidence. A sign of self-confidence is for the leader to remain calm under pressure. Actor and director Clint Eastwood explains: "If you start yelling, you give the impression of insecurity, and that becomes infectious. It bleeds down into the actors, and they become nervous; then it bleeds down into the crew, and they become nervous, and you don't get much accomplished that way. You have to set a tone and just demand a certain amount of tranquility."4

    A leader must ask, What is my self-confidence level? Do I show confidence in my actions? Have I done the homework and preparation needed to build self-confidence? Rate yourself on Self-confidence (low, average, high).
  7. Persistence. The leader must have drive and determination to stick with difficult tasks until they are completed. According to Niccolo Machiavelli, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain as to success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."5 Israeli prime minister Golda Meir referred to the quality of persistence when she advised that things do not just occur in one's life. She encouraged people to believe, be persistent, and struggle to overcome life's obstacles6. Abraham Lincoln identified resolution to succeed to be the most important leadership quality. In a speech to Congress June 20, 1848, Lincoln said, "Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find a way." Leaders from Walt Disney to Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's, have shown the importance of persistence for business success, and military leaders from Ulysses Grant to George Patton have proved its importance on the battlefield. However, no better example exists to show the importance of fierce resolve as a leadership quality than that of Winston Churchill. Historians agree that this leader, with his bulldog will, was a determining element in the success of the Allied nations in defeating the Axis powers in World War II. In the face of impossible odds and seemingly certain defeat, Churchill rallied his people. Simply, he would not give in; he would not give up7.

    If you are the leader, ask, Do I have self-drive and unflagging persistence to overcome adversity even when others lose their will?  Rate yourself on Persistence (low, average, high).
  8. Vitality. Even if the spirit is willing, strength and stamina are needed to fulfill the tasks of leadership. Effective leaders are typically described as electric, vigorous, active, and full of life, no matter how old they are or if they are physically disabled. Consider Franklin Roosevelt, who had polio, and Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf. It is interesting to note that at one point in recent history, the American president Ronald Reagan, the Roman Catholic pope John Paul II, and the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran were all over 70 years of age -- and more vital than many people half their age. At all ages, leaders require tremendous energy and stamina to deal with the demands they face and achieve success. A successful leader must have health and vigor to pursue his or her goals. Physical checkups and physical fitness are commonsense acts.

    Leaders must ask, Am I fit for the tasks of leadership? Do I have sufficient energy? Am I doing everything I can to keep physically strong? Rate yourself on Vitality (low, average, high).
  9. Charisma. Charisma is a special personal quality that generates others' interest and causes them to follow. Napoleon makes the point that great leaders are optimists and merchants of hope8.  Optimism, a sense of adventure, and commitment to a cause are traits found in charismatic leaders. These are qualities that unleash the potential of others and bring forth their energies. Charisma is a Greek word that means "divinely inspired gift." The result is admiration, enthusiasm, and the loyalty of followers. Charismatic leaders in history include Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Elizabeth I. Author Jay Conger colorfully states: Charismatic leaders are meaning makers. They pick and choose from the rough materials of reality and construct pictures of great possibilities. Their persuasion is of the subtlest kind, for they interpret reality to offer images of the future that are irresistible.

    As a leader, ask yourself, Do I possess a positive outlook and commitment in my demeanor that transforms followers to new levels of performance as well as personal loyalty to me? Rate yourself on Charisma (low, average, high).
  10. Integrity. The most important leadership quality is integrity, understood as honesty, strength of character, and courage. Without integrity, there is no trust, the number one element in the leader-follower equation. Integrity leads to trust, and trust leads to respect, loyalty, and ultimately action. It is trust coming from integrity that is needed for leading people from the boardroom, to the shop floor, to the battlefield9. A model of integrity was George Washington, about whom it was written:

    Endowed by nature with sound judgment, and an accurate discriminating mind, he was guided by an unvarying sense of moral right, which would tolerate the employment only of those means that would bear the most rigid examination, by fairness of intention which neither sought nor required disguise, and by a purity of virtue which was not only untainted but unsuspected10.  Washington's abilities, his determination, and even his image all furthered his achievements, but his greatest legacy was his integrity. He was respected by everyone. He refused ostentatious titles, insisting that in a republican country, he should be called simply "Mr. President." When Washington died in 1799, Americans mourned the loss of the man known as "the father of his country."11

    As a leader, ask, Do my people trust me? Do they know that I seek the truth and that I am true to my word? Do they see that I possess strength of character and the courage of my convictions? Rate yourself on Integrity (low, average, high)

How do you rate on the 10 qualities of leadership: vision, ability, enthusiasm, stability, concern for others, self-confidence, persistence, vitality, charisma, and integrity? Do you have the qualities that inspire others to follow? To maximize leadership effectiveness, capitalize on your strengths and address areas for improvement.  For example, capitalize on job knowledge and concern for others If these are strengths, and address vision and vitality if these need to be improved.

The Importance of Leadership

In The Storm of War, a definitive account of World War II, historian Andrew Roberts explains the victory of the Allied forces over the Axis powers traced to five main factors: (1) the ferocity of the Russian soldier fighting on his own soil; (2) the American arsenal of armaments from industrial might; (3) the acquiescence of the German Army to Hitler’s three errors -- fighting England and Russia in a two-front war, declaring war on the United States too soon (before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor), perpetuating the holocaust on the Jewish people; (4) U.S. President Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb; and (5) the remarkable leadership of Winston Churchill, whose determination “never to give in” proved to be stronger than the German Reich. Churchill's personal courage and superb speeches inspired the English people. His honor, defiance, and will make him acclaimed by many to be the greatest Briton ever. In the following quotation, one can see the importance of leadership persistence in determining the course and conclusion of the greatest conflict in history -- a world war that spanned the globe and claimed the lives of over 50 million people12.

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. -- Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 4 June 1940

A determined Winston Churchill braced Britons to their task. Churchill told his people that even though all of Europe may fall to the German onslaught:  We shall not flag or fail.  We shall go on to the end.  We shall fight In the seas and oceans, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, we shall never give in13. Churchill's name has become synonymous with historic, indeed heroic, leadership.


  1. Burns, Leadership; W. Edmondson, Island Creek Coal Company Leadership Conference, "Leadership in the Air Force," Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, October 1974; Yukl, Leadership in Organizations; K. Blanchard, Leading at a Higher Level (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007); J. Collins, Good to Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2001); B. Bass, The Bass Handbook of Leadership, 4th ed. (New York: Free Press, 2008); R. Goffee and G. Jones, "Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?"  in On Leadership (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011); and B. Moran, "The 4 Traits You Need to Be a Great Leader," Leadership (May 17, 2013).
  2. M. Mumford et al., "Leadership Skills for a Changing World," Leadership Quarterly 11 (2000), pp. 11ñ35.
  3. H. Ferguson, The Edge (Fairview Park, OH: Ferguson, 1983), section 2.
  4. H. Ferguson, The Edge (Fairview Park, OH: Ferguson, 1983), section 4.
  5. N. Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. G. Bull (New York: Penguin, 1961).
  6. G. Meir, My Life, reissued ed. (New York: Dell, 1976).
  7. J. Kegan, Winston Churchill (New York: Viking, 2002); and C. Sandys, We Shall Not Fail (New York: Penguin, 2003).
  8. F. McLynn, Napoleon (New York: Arcade, 2002).
  9. Korn/Ferry International Consulting Firm, with University of California - Los Angeles, School of Management, "Leadership Study of Success," 2000.
  10. J. Schroeder et al., Life and Times of Washington (Albany, NY: Washington Press, 1903).
  11. J. Burns et al., George Washington (New York: Times Books, 2004); and R. Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2010).
  12. A. Roberts, The Storm of War (New York: HarperCollins, 2011); and J. Simpson, "Winston Churchill," BBC News Magazine (January 22, 2015).
  13. W. Churchill and G. Boas, Winston S. Churchill (London: Macmillan, 1952).

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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