You might find this shocking, but leadership qualities, as it turns out, are very difficult to define. You may think that’s not true so here’s your challenge.

Ask 5 different people independently what is a leadership quality, and what do they think are the top 5 leadership qualities? I am certain you will get 5 different lists, and it’s likely they will have 5 different qualities.

I know this because I have been researching what many sources say are the top leadership qualities. I ended up with 59 varying characteristics. The most common one, which I will reveal later, was used in 8 of the 10 sources. Only 5 of the 59 were common more than 5 of the 10 sources. There was no agreement on what was most important, and what was least important.

What is a Leadership Quality?

Again, this might surprise you. I encourage you to do an independent search. However, finding a definition of what is a leadership quality was very difficult, if not impossible.

There are a million definitions of “leadership” but none of “leadership qualities.”

Let’s define what is a leadership quality. I like things simple.

A leadership quality is a personal quality that shapes effective leadership or leading.

A personal quality is a specific characteristic of a person that makes them who they are. A personal quality can be good, bad, or neutral. Therefore,

…leadership qualities are the select personal qualities that make a person a good leader.

Next, I’ll give you my top 5 choices for top leadership characteristics, and why I chose them. These are based on personal experience as a Navy leader and living my adult life amongst leaders.

After this, I will reveal what my research showed so you have more to think about.

Top 5 Leadership Qualities of Effective Leaders

This will take a different approach than most because I find many personal qualities depend on other qualities to be truly part of your character. No personal or leadership quality stands on its own.

Also, these are the qualities you must have as a leader, not the qualities that others admire in a leader. They can be the same, but not necessarily. I am writing about what you the leader must have, not what your subordinates or peers admire.

As a leader, you will have to make decisions and do things that many won’t admire, but ultimately are the best thing for your success.

1. Personal Accountability

In leadership, this means being willing to answer for all outcomes resulting from your choices, decisions, direction, behaviors, and actions. I put this first because it is the scariest concept to most people taking on a leadership role. Many leaders fail because they get to a point where they won’t accept this level of personal accountability.

The level I am talking about is accepting that when something goes horribly wrong in your organization, regardless of what the failure may be, that you accept the failure is ultimately your responsibility. Who caused the failure to begin and whoever else is involved is important, but you as a leader are ultimately responsible.

To be able to accept this level of accountability requires other personal qualities. This includes personal honesty and integrity. You must be able to maintain the highest level of moral uprightness of anyone in your organization. Your company, team, group, etc. will look at you for what is acceptable or not.

This is a big part of your personal accountability because others working with you won’t accept any responsibility if you’re not honest about your level of accountability. Those you lead will be less likely to blame others when you have the integrity to never blame others when your decisions lead to any type of missteps.

2. Trust

Trust is a big one because it is a two-way street for you and being the true leader that gets things done.

The leader must be able to

A. trust others and…

B. the leader must have the trust of others.

As the leader, you must have trust in others because you must be able to delegate responsibilities to your company execs, your department members, your team members, etc. If you don’t trust them, you will end up consumed with trying to do everything and get less done than other leaders around you.

When you don’t trust those you lead, you leave them feeling like pawns. You will question everything they do to the extent they believe it’s a waste of time to do anything you didn’t think of yourself.

A lack of trust by you in others will limit creativity and limit production. Your level of innovation will be reduced, and you will always feel like getting ahead is a struggle.

This is where your listening skills become vital as a sub-element of many important qualities. However, when those you lead recognize you listen to them, you build a level of trust many struggling leaders never achieve.

Similarly, the lack of trust in your team, company execs, department heads, etc. will make you an ineffective leader.

Others you lead must trust you emphatically. This is partially why personal accountability is listed first. When you truly stand up for your team and accept responsibility, this forms the basis for the trust those you lead will have in you.

When you trust them, and delegate to them, they trust that you trust them. Yeah, that sounds a little circular, but it is the kind of trust you need.

Gaining the trust of those you lead includes living by your own rules and being willing to do anything you direct them to do. This encumbers loyalty as well. Loyalty is likely one of the biggest sub-traits of gaining trust because trust includes loyalty. To have trust, you must be loyal to both those you lead and to the outcome you seek.

Trust is a powerful quality that is the basis of many personal qualities, and key for you to be a good leader.

3. Fear

Yes, a good leader must accept fear and not be afraid to have it. Not recognizing what is dangerous will cause a leader to make decisions that affect those led in ways never imagined. Without the right level of fear, a leader will fail to recognize the right level of risk and how to adjust for it.

Without fear, a leader will make decisions that are not just bold but are plain stupid. The lack of fear will lose trust because you will make decisions that are costly in many ways to those you lead and not care. Those you lead will see this clearly.

Having a true respect for fear enables you to be bold and innovative while respecting those you lead. Fear ensures you understand limits, and when you must push those limits, that you include ways to reduce the risk. The risk can be personal, financial, or other things. Fear ensures you consider them and have mechanisms to compensate for them.

Being afraid doesn’t mean you must talk about your fears all the time. In fact, I would never recommend you talk about your fears as fears too often. This creates a feeling you are too afraid of everything and you will lose trust.

Those you lead will recognize that you are not brazenly fearless by the way you plan and execute those plans. The act of planning for risk makes it clear what you accept and fear and adds to the trust they have for you as a leader.

4. Forward-Thinking

This is both how you think, and how far ahead you think. A leader is not focused on tomorrow. Managers who never lead focus on tomorrow. That’s fine because you need people who limit their thinking like this to ensure the job or task gets done.

However, a leader looks to the end to start a new beginning. For a leader nothing ever ends, which is why leaders must have an unobstructed vision for the future. Being visionary is strategic by nature.

When you lead, you must be the one that can see outcomes that others don’t. How you get this vision varies. It isn’t all in your head. It comes from listening, observing, and then pulling it all together in a clear outcome that step-by-step strategies and tactics can be developed around to achieve the outcome and define new ones.

A leader’s ability to be forward thinking cannot be limited to abstract ideas that sound great. This typically goes nowhere, unless you are a politician. Your “big ideas” include facts and evidence to gain the trust of others. Unlike when people vote, people won’t jump on your big idea in business or the military without some reasonable evidence to support where you see your team going.

Forward-thinking includes having lots of knowledge about everything those you lead must do. It doesn’t mean you are the expert in everything but means you have a working understanding of how all tasks get done. This takes time to develop. No one just walks out of college or jumps into a company at 21 years old and is ready to be the top leader. Knowledge and experience are the vital elements of effective forward-thinking.

5. Assertiveness

This is not being pushy. This is not being afraid to say no, and not being afraid to stick to your guns. You do so in a self-assured manner that is not perceived as pure aggression. Assertiveness is a natural counter-balance to fear which can be learned. It is not used to do your bidding at any cost.

Being assertive includes many qualities which most never consider.

Empathy is one. Empathy is often given over importance. Many non-leaders think it is more important to see things from everyone’s independent points of view. While understanding countering points of view are important, seeing everything from the differing point of view of everyone is destructive and dangerous.

First, it leads to apparent bias. Having empathy with one person’s perspective over another’s can easily lead to the rest of those you lead viewing you as showing favoritism. This will destroy the trust you have with those you lead.

Empathy must be used carefully to add to your assertiveness. Used wrong, your assertiveness can easily be seen as arrogance, a lack of listening, or lack of trust.

Sympathy is another quality often given too high of an importance on its own. Sympathy is having feeling or pity for others’ misfortunes. This is important in assertiveness because many times your decisions and ability to act decisively will be affected by negative events happening to individuals you lead. Too much sympathy can destroy your assertiveness.

Risk adversity is another sub-element of assertiveness that can tear down your assertive abilities or make them great. Those you lead, by default, will be more averse to taking chances then you as the leader. That’s why they aren’t the leader.

Similarly, you cannot take foolish risks or use assertiveness to push unacceptable risk. This is another reason why fear is a standout quality a leader must have. I think you can see the connection.

What the Research Shows are Top Leadership Qualities

In researching the top qualities of effective leaders, I found 59 different qualities from 10 diverse sources. In those 59, just 5 were commonly used by 5 or more of the sources. Does that surprise you?

Here’s the top 5 from my research:

  1. Communication
  2. Positive Attitude
  3. Confidence
  4. Inspirational
  5. Focus

The problem in the research was the authors did not clearly differentiate between what was admired by others versus what qualities are most important. This was a major problem.

I created my list before doing the analysis. Because I am not defining what others admire, I did not change anything after I did my research. I had years of being in leadership positions and working with highly effective leaders. My list was not created from feelings but from experience.

This doesn’t mean these qualities are not valuable. But in most cases, I find them to be sub-qualities of my 5 top qualities of an effective leader.

Notice, no one included fear. Fear was not even one of the 59 total qualities I uncovered. You see I believe this a big mistake.

Takeaways From Top Leadership Qualities

 When deciding what leadership qualities are most important for effective leadership, it’s important to consider how they were derived.  Were the choices made by analyzing what other people admire in leaders or from what truly makes a leader effective?

 Regardless of what you believe, many people mix qualities of admiration with those of being liked.  This is why how the top leadership qualities were chosen is important.  It is never the leader’s job to be liked by everyone.

In fact, the most effective leaders typically are not liked by everyone.  In terms of how people choose friends, these leaders would often be on the low end of friend choices.  Why?  Because generally we want to like our friends, and for them to like us.  We also want friends to share our traits.

Sure this is a generality, but it is fair.  Effective leaders are liked or loved for what they achieve for those lead.  This takes different qualities than merely being a friend.  No one leader can be a friend to all, but the leader can lead them all to success or failure.

Therefore, I stand firmly by my top 5 leadership qualities of effective leaders.  Remember, this is just the top 5.  It’s not intended to be the only qualities.  Each quality has sub-qualities, and as my diagram suggests, they overlap to make the effective leader.

What are your top 5 qualities of an effective leader?  Share them in the comments below.