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Eight Qualities of Exceptional Leaders

Eight Qualities of Exceptional Leaders
Picture of Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen

CEO, Lead Facilitator, Mediator - The Real Learning Experience

We work with a lot of leaders – the good, the bad, and the meh! That means we witness leadership in action every day, an opportunity to observe what makes the difference for the most successful leaders.

The first thing to emphasise is that leaders are not born – no matter how many times we hear people trot out the old line about ‘born leaders.’ Yes, some people have traits that help prepare them for leadership – but those same traits can be highly destructive as leaders if they aren’t harnessed. For example, think of someone with plenty of determination – sounds like a good leadership trait, doesn’t it? But what if that determination translates as ‘do things my way’ or as a failure to stop and listen to people?

Any trait that helps someone lead is only useful if that person has learned how to use it – and, most importantly, when to pull it back. Leaders may start with some raw materials but it is the shaping that creates excellence.

Regardless of how they are acquired, we see a pattern of qualities that successful leaders exhibit. There are some qualities that people want to see in their leaders – things like honesty, approachability, and fairness. But, as valid as these qualities are, they don’t set a leader apart.

I believe this is because people feel let down when their leader doesn’t exhibit those qualities – but they take them for granted when the leader does show them. And fair enough too. Everyone should feel entitled to go to workplace where their leaders are approachable, honest and fair. Let’s add empathetic, consistent and respectful to this category of qualities.

You can’t be a good leader without these qualities – but having them doesn’t make you an exceptional leader. That depends on a whole other range of much rarer qualities. These are qualities that come through reflection, growth and practice – and require a leader to look past their own ‘bus-ness’ and see, really see, the people they lead.

When we see leaders with all, or even most, of these eight qualities, we know that they will have a long-term success in leadership roles. It isn’t that they are perfect – far from it, and the second of the eight qualities addresses that. Their teams forgive them for being imperfect because they don’t pretend to be otherwise -and because they always strive to improve

Great leaders have an attitude of gratitude about life in general. They embrace life, opportunities and challenges with enthusiasm and don’t get bogged down with self-pity and entitlement. As a result, they are uplifting to be with, and that habit of gratitude flows through to a genuine and felt gratefulness for what team members contribute.

Tip: Try to start every day with something that helps you feel gratitude – and then hold onto that gratitude through the day to put minor issues into perspective. It could be watching the sun rise, going for a run, spending time over breakfast with the family, or enjoying a great coffee in the morning air. To extend this habit of gratitude:

  • Finish each day by writing down something you are grateful for – or share that thought with someone else
  • When you find your gratitude slipping during the day, refer back to your list
  • Start a gratitude board for your team, displayed where everyone will see it – lead the way by adding something you are grateful for every day and invite others to contribute 

Human beings are flawed and imperfect creatures – and leaders, contrary to popular opinion, are humans too! When people first take on a leadership role, they feel the pressure to know everything, control everything, and never make mistakes. That just isn’t going to happen!

When leaders become comfortable with their imperfections, they own their mistakes and a barrier between them and their team is dismantled. Their teams always knew their leaders were imperfect – it just takes a while for the leader to catch up!

As a leader becomes comfortable with their vulnerability, they stop hiding behind their position and their power. People connect with them because we are all drawn to authentic and genuine people – who aren’t afraid of people seeing them as they are. 

Tip: tell your team that you have no illusions of being perfect, that you will strive to do your best but that also know you won’t get everything right. This is a good start – but they are just words. Those words will be meaningless unless you back it up with action. When you make a mistake, own it. When something worries you, talk about – let people see that you experience the same insecurities and concerns that they do. This doesn’t mean that you bring all your personal problems to work and lay them bare – but it can help to give people a glimpse behind the curtain to see the human behind the title.


Leadership is filled with moments that ask leaders to choose between doing what is easy and doing what is right. It is easier to avoid giving uncomfortable feedback to a team member, but it won’t help the results of the team and leads to a decline in overall standards. It is easier to ‘look past’ unacceptable behaviour that is contrary to the team’s values, but it creates a sense amongst the team that the leader doesn’t have their back. It is easier to avoid an unpopular decision, but it leads to compromised outcomes and lack of clarity. It is easier to say yes to an unreasonable request from a more senior manager, but it creates resentment in your team who have to deliver on your promise.

Teams and team members won’t always like your decisions or agree with your feedback – but that doesn’t make them wrong. It takes courage to make good choices and necessary decisions.

Tip: recognise that leadership is not about popularity. Sometimes we have to do the right thing and then sit with the discomfort of having displeased people. The fact that some people are unhappy is not evidence that you have done the wrong thing. While their opinions may differ, the only evidence of doing the wrong thing is doing the wrong thing! If you can look yourself in the mirror and know you did what was right and necessary, and that you did it in a way that respected people as far as possible, that is courage

Having a clear and well communicated purpose and an agreed set of team values makes it easier for a leader to be courageous. It means that you don’t have to make apparently arbitrary decisions – you just need to have the courage to do what is right in supporting the purpose and values.

Having a clear and well communicated purpose and an agreed set of team values makes it easier for a leader to be courageous.

A leader who sees their people as subordinates is going to convey a sense of superiority – and create resentment in their team members. Great leaders recognise that they are only relevant because of their team. They focus on what the team needs from them, not on what they need from the team. Don’t gloss over that last sentence, sit with it for a moment. What happens most commonly in your workplace? Leaders deciding what they need their people to do – or leaders asking what their people need to allow them to do great work?

Max DePree, an American writer, said, ‘the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.’ We often describe the golden bookends of high performance – clarity and feedback. Make sure people know what doing a great job looks like, give them plenty of feedback so they know whether they are on track or not, and, in between, focus on what your people need from you in order to succeed.

Tip: be proud of what you achieve but put more emphasis on what the team achieves than on your individual accolades. I worked with one organisation with two senior leaders. One had an office adorned with photos of the with all the ‘important’ people they had met in the course of their work. The other had photos of their team doing great work. Some of those photos included the leader, some didn’t. All of them featured the genuinely important people. 

We have a philosophy that underpins our entire approach to working with leaders – when something doesn’t go as expected, the first question a great leader asks is, ‘what failure of leadership led to this?’ That philosophy is all about humility.

Great leaders are fiercely protective of their team – when the shit hits the fan, they don’t throw people under the bus. Often, they take the hit – ‘yes, that isn’t good enough and I need to fix it.’

That does not equate to failing to hold people accountable – it means having your team’s backs, fighting for them when the time comes, and then dealing with issues within the team.

A loyal leader will take the hit and then work with their team to address the issue. This means avoiding a culture of blame by creating a supportive and safe process where people can be open about performance – and by focusing on what can be done to rectify the situation and learn for the future.

Loyalty is also about having the courage to resist unreasonable demands that other people want to place on the team. It is acceptable for other teams and more senior managers to have high expectations of the team – it is not acceptable for the demands to be so high that they place your team under ridiculous pressure or have them working crazy hours.

Tip: notice your first response to problems – is it about who is at fault? Or is it focused on understanding the issue, finding solutions, and learning? When your team is being criticised by others, even if you know who is ‘at fault’, take the bullet – after all, as the leader it is your responsibility. Then debrief with the person (or the team) and help them be better next time.

Work should be fun. There is a difference between having a laugh and goofing off – but we witness many workplaces where people work hard, get great results, and enjoy being with each other. A lot of this is modelled by the leader – if the leaders takes themselves very seriously, frowns at frivolity, and never stops to connect with people, it will feel uncomfortable for team members to have fun.

A leader who laughs with their team, and at themselves, builds connections and promotes relaxed environments in which results flow.

Tip: don’t race out and buy a book called ‘100 hilarious but appropriate workplace jokes!’ This is not about being a comedian or a joke teller. It is about relaxing and not taking life too seriously. See the humour in situations – and most importantly, laugh at yourself. Let people see your ‘lighter’ side and encourage your team to have fun while they work.

Great leaders genuinely care about their team members. This doesn’t mean they become everyone’s best friend, but it does mean they see their team members as people, and not as work units.

People have complicated lives and a clinical expectation around work-life boundaries lacks humanity. Good leaders help people meet their needs, knowing they will respond by striving to do their best for the team.

You don’t need to become a pushover or allow work to be derailed every time someone has a personal issue. In fact, most kindness isn’t about the issues, it’s about caring about the good things in people’s lives.

Tip: take time to get to know people as people. Know what excites them, what scares them, and what they are dealing with. The best way to do this is by sharing something of yourself – create a sense of reciprocity.

When people do have issues, you don’t need to be their counsellor but you need to check that they are OK. Don’t impose rules blindly – rules for rules sake ignores the different needs of the people in your team. Have the courage to lead people differently but fairly. When you need to be firm, you can also be compassionate.

This one may seem strange after everything that has come before but is the underlying mindset that explains why this one makes the list.

Great leaders have enormous belief in the potential of the people in their team – and they don’t allow them to easily fall short of that potential. They are supportive but they all challenge people to be the best versions of themselves. They set high standards with people – and then hold them accountable to those standards.

They also refuse to allow people to escape from the consequences of their actions and choices. It might seem gentle to tell someone that ‘it is all OK,’ but will they learn? They aren’t brutal either – they don’t abandon people to sort their own problems out. Instead, they make sure that people are owning their outcomes and then support them as they identify and implement strategies to do better.

Tip: resist the urge to ‘save’ people. Allow them to struggle and even to fail (appropriately). Then help them plan how to move forward – let them own their problems and be responsible for solutions, but coach them through the process. Express your own belief and confidence in them – and help them set challenging but realistic goals.

This article may seem idealistic to some people reading it – but I have a question. What is stopping you doing these things? They are all free and very few of them take more time than you are already spending. In fact, they are really about spending ‘different time’ rather than ‘more time’.

Really, they are all choices. Choices to do what we have always done or to emulate some of the behaviours of highly successful leaders. Start by picking a few tips and making them habits. Then pick a few more. But don’t expect perfection – and neither do the people in your team.