10 Qualities of a Good Leader
If you have worked for a bad leader, you likely already have the answer to why good leadership matters. Good leadership can make the difference between enjoying your job and tolerating your job.
Before we dig into what makes a leader good, let’s think about the costs of bad leadership. Even before the Great Resignation of the COVID 19 pandemic, bad leaders cost their organizations in terms of reduced productivity and employee turnover. For example, it's estimated that poor leadership reduces team member productivity by up to 7%, according to The Ken Blanchard Companies (PDF Source).
Additionally, bad leaders also cost their organizations by increasing the potential for employees to become burned out. Gallup research suggests that in June 2021, 74% of employees said they sometimes experienced burnout on the job, and burned-out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room. The human costs of bad leadership are just as bad and include low employee morale and decreased job satisfaction. In other words, bad leaders are the difference between a job you love and a job you might leave.
On the other hand, good leaders bring many benefits to their teams and entire organizations, like increased profit, customer satisfaction and employee retention, according to the Center for Creative Leadership.
According to Gallup research, the Great Resignation can be stopped with great leadership.
What is a Successful Leader?
Here are 10 qualities of good leaders. They:
1. Possess Self-awareness
One of the most important qualities of a good leader is self-awareness. The leader needs to be constantly aware of how they are acting, what they are saying and what message their nonverbal communication is sending. Although they may not always realize it, team members constantly observe leaders and model their actions and reactions by how they see the leader react.
This is especially important in times of change or extreme stress. Employees will look to the leader for formal and informal guidance on how to react to the change or stress and consciously or unconsciously react in the same way.
Think about how you respond in situations of unexpected change or stress. Is this the way you want to respond?
2. Garner Credibility
Research by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner suggests that credibility, or the ability to be trusted, is one of the most important characteristics of a good leader. Leaders gain credibility and a team member’s trust by doing what they say they will do, holding themselves accountable for their words and actions, and putting the needs of the team before their own.
Gallup reports that employees who don’t trust their leaders are more likely to leave the organization than those at organizations with a high trust culture, making credibility one of the most important qualities of a good leader. When leaders are not credible, team members are not likely to trust them.
How can you demonstrate to your team that you are credible? How do you earn their trust?
3. Focus on Relationship Building
Early management researchers assumed that the most important element of the workplace was the work itself. They conducted studies and developed systems meant to increase employee productivity but did little to address the human elements of employees. Contemporary leadership theories take a more holistic approach to the workplace and include the human elements of employees, including their need to form relationships with team members.
As human beings, employees are not able to bring only the part of them that does the work to their organizations. They bring their entire selves which is why leaders need to be excellent relationship builders in all areas of the organization.
Think about your current workplace relationships. Who else can you connect with?
4. Have a Bias for Action
There are some leaders who talk a good game but never do anything other than talk. Good leaders are those who talk about what needs to happen and then do something about it or have a bias for action.
Leaders with a bias for action do not freeze in times of uncertainty or when a decision needs to be made. They courageously decide and act and hold themselves accountable for their decisions and actions. Someone has to take the first step, and these leaders are the ones taking it.
Do difficult situations or decisions cause you to freeze, or are you an action-taker?
5. Exhibit Humility
Humility is a word that is easily misunderstood. Individuals who have humility tend to not be overly proud of their work and accomplishments and do not believe they are better than others. In other words, humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less and of others more.
Humble leaders are not likely to take credit for others' work. They put the needs of the team before their own, and they are strong advocates for what their team members need. By focusing more on others than themselves, humble leaders gain the trust of followers and help them develop and grow beyond what they may have thought possible.
How much attention are you giving to the needs and accomplishments of others?
6. Empower the Team
A leader who empowers others unleashes their ability to act on behalf of their area of work or expertise and provides them with an opportunity to grow and improve. When a leader empowers a team member, they give them a set of guidelines to work in and then leave them alone to do their work.
For example, you may have had the experience of speaking with the customer service department of a store about a purchase you were unsatisfied with. When the customer service agent can give you a refund or discount on a future purchase without first checking with their manager, they have been empowered in their role.
Who are you empowering, either in or outside of work? Who can make some decisions without checking with you first?
7. Stay Authentic
Authenticity is acting in a way that represents who we truly are rather than trying to act like someone else. Leaders who act authentically show their true selves to their team members, and, over time, team members come to rely on the leader acting in certain ways.
For example, if one of the characteristics of the leader is patience, every time that leader demonstrates patience to team members, they are acting authentically. The more team members see the leader being patient, the more they will come to expect that no matter what they bring to the leader, the leader will respond with patience. Acting authentically is also a great way for leaders to build trust with team members.
Do you speak and act from the core of who you are, or do you try to act like someone else?
8. Present Yourself as Constant and Consistent
Leaders whose words and actions are similar every time enable the team to not have to wonder or worry about how the leader is going to respond. Like with authenticity, leaders who speak in a constant and consistent way almost become predictable over time. The team comes to rely on the leader’s predictability which builds trust and reduces stress in the workplace.
How well are your teammates, friends and family able to predict your reactions?
9. Become a Role Model for Followers
Although they may not realize it, leaders are constantly being observed by followers. Team members watch to see how the leader responds to messages or events and model their own responses from what they see the leader do.
Good leaders are those who are aware that they are being observed by the team and set an example for them to follow. For example, if leaders respond in support of unexpected changes, over time team members will start to do the same.
Whether or not you are in a formal leadership role, you are likely a leader in some area of your life. What kind of role model are you for observers?
10. Be Fully Present
This one can be tough for leaders since they are often pulled in many directions at the same time. Being present for team members means that the leader is fully focused on what team members are saying, what they are doing and the work itself. Leaders who are not present are those who appear distracted by other things and do not give team members their full attention.
When leaders are present, they demonstrate their value of team members. There is nothing more valuable that leaders can give team members than their time, which can be done by being fully present.
How much attention do you pay to those you work with?
Ways to Develop Leadership Skills
Now that we have a sense of the qualities of good leaders, what are some ways that you can develop and practice them? Good leaders are not made overnight, and the road to becoming an even better leader has to start somewhere.
Consider these suggestions:
- Test, try, improve: Start with small actions or changes to test and try, and then ask a coworker or friend for feedback. Use the list of qualities of good leaders as a starting point by picking one or two things you want to work on – and then give it a try. For example, if you want to increase your self-awareness, try a new way of speaking or acting in a meeting, and then ask a coworker for their feedback and see how closely it matches your perception of what you were doing.
- Develop a support network: Start with one or two people who can become your mentors or accountability partners. Mentors help us to think differently about how we act and perceive things that happen in the workplace. Accountability partners help us stay on track with the plans we have made. Think about someone you appreciate and ask them to be your mentor or accountability partner.
- Build relationships: Effective leaders are relationship builders. Start small and expand your network over time. You might want to start by trying to speak with one or two colleagues each week that you don’t typically speak with and take it from there. Soon you will have a wide network of relationships.
- Learn more about good leadership: Take a course or an entire degree program. For example, if you are working on a bachelor's degree, consider adding an undergraduate concentration in leadership. If you have already completed a bachelor’s degree, a graduate certificate in leadership or a full master’s degree in organizational leadership would be an excellent next step.
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Dr. Jennifer Varney has over 20 years of experience in higher education leadership. Her disciplines include leadership, management and organizational behavior. She has held roles in academic administration, advising leadership and as an adjunct faculty member. She is also a member of the ACBSP (Accreditation Council for Business Schools & Programs) Baccalaureate/Graduate board of commissioners and a John Maxwell certified speaker, trainer, mentor and coach. Varney’s publications include servant leadership, proactive advising, adult learning theories and distance learning. She has presented at a variety of national organizations providing presentations focused on leadership and adult learning.
Varney’s current work is in the innovation space as a co-senior leader in the design and operation of a cross-functional team of associate deans who will lead academic program operations for SNHU’s Global Campus, which serves over 150,000 students and 7,000 faculty members.
Varney has earned a BS in Business Administration, MS in Business Education and PhD in Organizational Leadership. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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