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5 traits of leadership

Five traits of a great leader

By Jose J. Ruiz | Alder Koten | Gonzaga University

A google search for the term leadership yields about 147,000,000 results. Leadership is very likely one of the most discussed topics in business books today. As cited in Leadership in Organizations by Gary Yukl (2012), “After a comprehensive review of the leadership literature, Stogdill (1974,p. 259) concluded that ‘there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept'” (p. 2). The topic of leadership is often misunderstood with the tendency to think about leadership only in the context of power, titles, and people who are in charge creating most of the misunderstanding (R. Hogan et al., 1994; Kaiser et al., 2008).

The following are what I consider the five key traits of a great leader after my own review of leadership literature and many years of interaction with executive leaders.

A great leader is a great manager

The overlap between leadership and management is a common theme in both informal and academic circles. In many cases, we use the terms interchangeably. Yukl (2012) points “It is obvious that a person can be a leader without being a manager and a person can be a manager without leading” (p. 6). My leadership philosophy begins with the premise that in order to be effective leaders we can’t differentiate between leadership and management. Bennis and Nanus (1985) proposed “managers are people that do things right, and leaders are those who do the right thing” (as cited in Yukl, 2012, p. 21). The approach suggests that we can choose to be a leader or a manager. However, while we can define management and leadership as two distinct roles they coexist in the same person, and we require both to be successful in personal and professional endeavors. As stated by Margaret Wheatley (2006) in her book Leadership and the New Science when it comes to the relationship between systems, behaviors, and individuals “There are no either / ors” (p. 23).

A great leader transcends by enhancing learning and innovation Great leaders have a long-term impact.

Their most significant contributions are not simply reflected in today’s results; they are reflected in the long-term development of people and institutions. They help people adapt, change, prosper and grow (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.25). They do this by creating conditions that are favorable to learning and innovation (Yukl, 2012, p. 99) and by focusing on creating flexible and adaptive organizational structures that enable rather than constrain (Wheatly, 2006, p. 21). “One useful distinction is between efforts to change attitudes versus efforts to change roles, structure, and procedures” (as cited in Yukl, 2012, p. 77). The first has a long-term impact, while the later enacts short-term change. “There are many attempts to leave behind the view that predominated in the twentieth century, when we believed that organizations could succeed by confining workers to narrow roles and asking only for very partial contributions” (Wheatley, 2005, p. 14). A great leader’s legacy is built by developing competent individuals and leaders who are involved in solving problems and making decisions; functional self-directed teams; and a culture that makes them thrive.

A great leader is a teacher not a preacher

Great leaders teach, coach, and guide others to align their actions with the shared values of the organization (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.90). They can be great communicators but what makes them effective is their ability to guide others into finding their answers versus providing them. “Questions develop people. They help people escape the trap of their own paradigms by broadening their perspective and forcing them to take responsibility for their viewpoint” (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.97). Asking a good question also drives a leader to listen attentively to what others are saying (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.97). A strong argument can be made that listening is the difference between teaching and preaching. Mastering the art of asking questions turns teaching into a communal event. “Good teaching is always and essentially communal” (Parker, 2017, p. 120). When teaching becomes communal the line between the teacher and the learner becomes blurred, and so the leader becomes an active learner. “The best leaders are simply the best learners, and life is their laboratory” (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.38).

A great leader’s power comes from influence and respect

Influence and respect are an essential ingredient of great leadership. “If you don’t believe the messenger you won’t believe the message” (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.26). Titles provide an individual with a position and a role within an organization or system. They respond to an organizational model based on the Newtonian view of the universe where understanding of the whole comes from the segmentation and understanding of the parts (Wheatley, 1999). “Titles are granted, but it’s behavior that earns respect” (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.33). A great leader’s power comes from respect; hence it comes from their behavior, not their title. The conclusion that a leader’s power comes from their behavior can also lead us to conclude that a leader’s influence comes from setting an example. “One of the best ways to prove that something is important is by doing it yourself and setting an example” (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.26).

Great leaders are flexible, adaptable, and drive change

An important element of leadership is to know when not to lead. Leadership may be unnecessary and even resented when people face relatively simple or routine coordination problems. People tend to perform better if they are left alone under circumstances that don’t involve changes in their routine (Van Vugt, Hogan & Kaiser, 2008). It can be easily concluded that leadership is not a challenge when there is no need to change. However, our current hyper-competitive, fast-paced, and rapidly changing global economy requires adaptable organizations and flexible leaders (Kaiser, 2010). The lack of long-term predictability makes flexible and adaptive leadership essential in today’s organizations. It sounds simple, but it’s complicated. “Flexible and adaptive leadership involves changing behavior in appropriate ways as the situation changes” (Yukl, Mahsud, 2010). The paradox is that changing behavior takes time, and fast-paced change typically does not provide enough time. However, the paradox exists in the context of a Newtonian style organization with rigid structures. Hence, a great leader builds flexible organizations that develop and nurture individuals, and other leaders, with behavioral flexibility and adaptability.

Great leadership entails a holistic and not a mechanistic approach. It requires a delicate balance between satisfying short-term requirements and sacrificing time and resources today for the benefit of tomorrow. I can also conclude that great leadership is not about the leader. It’s about the short and long-term impact of their actions in what others are and what they can be. Perhaps the most important conclusion is that great leadership is fractal; a never-ending pattern. It doesn’t just develop people; it continuously develops other great leaders under the same pattern in different scales. Great leadership is a fractal chain reaction.



Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. (2005). What we know about leadership. Review of General Psychology, 9, 169–180.

Kaiser, R. (2010). Introduction to the special issue on developing flexible and adaptable leadership for and age of uncertainty. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 77–80.

Kaiser, R. B., Hogan, R., & Craig, S. B. (2008). Leadership and the fate of organizations. American Psychologist, 63, 96–110.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (Jossey-Bass). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Van Vugt, M., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. (2008). Leadership, followership, and evolution. American Psychologist, 62(3), 182-196.

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the new science. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Yukl, G. A. (2012). Leadership in organizations (8th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Yukl, G. A., & Mahsud, R. (2010). Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62, 81–93.


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