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Attributes of an
Exemplary Leader
Part I

By January 31, 2024No Comments

As noted in Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership, I asked students in the leadership class to identify essential attributes of an exemplary leader. Based on the number of responses, the rank order of attributes was communication, confidence, integrity, vision, honesty, delegation, decisiveness, inspiration, humility, and courage. As the course progressed, students were exposed to a wide range of leaders and read several leadership books. As a result, the list of attributes grew.

Alphabetically, the following attributes were added to the list: accountability, adaptability, ambitious, authentic, character, charisma, commitment, common sense, competence, conviction, creativity, curiosity, diversity, emotional intelligence, empathy, empowerment, fit, fortitude, grit, influence, intelligence, loyalty, passionate, reliability, self-awareness, and trust.

Finding someone who possesses all thirty-six attributes is a tall order. Let’s narrow the list to the essentials. Which attribute shall we throw out? Many will choose diversity. I agree! Diversity is essential in the team, not the leader—it must include a diverse set of strengths and viewpoints.

Next, I’d drop charisma. Many exemplary leaders aren’t charismatic. The same applies to inspiration. Creativity must be present in the team, but it’s not essential in the leader. As for ambition, the leader’s ambition must be for the team, not the leader. To be courageous, don’t you need to be competent and confident?

What about the other attributes? Aren’t empowerment and delegation close cousins? Can a leader who is not loyal be trusted? Can a leader who can’t be trusted achieve great things through influence? Aren’t integrity, honesty, reliability, and trust elements of character? To be emotionally intelligent, you must possess self-awareness and empathy. Aren’t commitment, conviction, and fortitude included in grit?

What’s left?

  • Accountability: as President Truman said, “The buck stops here!”
  • Adaptability: be capable of dealing with the unexpected—be flexible!
  • Authentic: as Chris Lofgren shared, “You can only be the second-best someone else. Be yourself.”
  • Character: it defines you!
  • Common sense: it’s misnamed, because so few possess it—be street smart! Trust your instinct.
  • Communication: my biggest mistakes were due to poor communication—to me and by me. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
  • Courageous: know which hill you are prepared to die on—don’t sacrifice your core values.
  • Curiosity: asking why is important; so is asking why not. Often pleased, but never satisfied is my credo. My name isn’t George, but I am curious.
  • Decisiveness: be prepared to decide when a decision from you is needed or required. Don’t be afraid to decide, but don’t make decisions you don’t have to make or make them too quickly.
  • Emotionally intelligent: EQ trumps IQ.
  • Empowerment: leaders must grow leaders—to do so, they must empower members of their team to lead. Delegate, but follow up. Trust, but verify!
  • Fit: just as the human body will reject an organ implant, an organization will reject a leader who doesn’t fit.
  • Grit: “Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Winston Churchill
  • Humility: it’s not about you; it’s about the team. “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Lao Tzu
  • Intelligence: smart trumps dumb?
  • Passionate: passion is contagious. Passion flows from belief. As I said in Why It Matters, “If you’re given the opportunity to assemble a team from scratch, start with character, and end with fit. In between, include diversity, competence, passion, and humility.”
  • Vision: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV) Paraphrasing Chris Lofgren, “Exemplary leaders can see around corners.” It isn’t necessary for a leader to be visionary. I’ve seen leaders adopt someone else’s vision, pursue it, and achieve it. It’s not as important whose vision it is as it is for the leader and team to buy into the vision.


Next Week: Attributes of an Exemplary Leader—Part II