The Four Character Traits of Great Leaders

May 5, 2014 | Burlington, Ontario
Contributed by John Rankin, Director of Executive Education

Often when I am at a social gathering and people find out I’m involved in leadership training and development they ask me “What’s new in leadership development?” They expect me to tell them about the latest popular leadership theory such as “Unleashing the Quarterback Within You.” You know them, the books you buy at the airport that can be read between Montreal and Toronto and forgotten just as quickly. In reality what is new about leadership development is that it matters, it matters more than ever before.

Leadership – good leadership – is something that is consistently discussed, debated and sought out; it can, after all, make or break an organization’s success. While the difficult challenge of developing leaders is more important than ever, the good news is what people look for in their leaders has held constant over many years, across diverse cultures. About 30 years ago two researchers, James Kouzes and Barry Posner asked thousands of people from diverse organizations “What values (personal traits and characteristics) do you look for in and admire in your leaders?” Over 200 different factors were identified. They reduced the list to the twenty most cited character traits.

While [honesty is] not something one “learns” in adulthood, an honest leader can work to better communicate that integrity.

Thirty years later, tens of thousands of people across the globe have been asked to rank the top twenty attributes. In every country, across every industry, at every level of employee, four, and only four, traits have received more than 50% of the votes. They are:

  • Honest
  • Forward Looking
  • Competent
  • Inspiring

Inspiring and forward looking have always been hallmarks of great leaders. Martin Luther King junior’s “I have a dream” speech is a powerful example; an iconic leadership example in history that affected change. However, it is revealing that we look for these same traits in leaders closer to our daily lives, managers, CEOs and politicians. Leaders that are able to inspire us in our daily work, while providing a vision of where our company, province or country is going. While forward thinking comes naturally to those born with a strategic perspective as demonstrated by the now famous delayed gratification experiments with young children, all of us can learn to use planning tools to better anticipate the future and build communication skills to inspire others to join us on the journey towards a common vision. The highest ranked trait is honesty. While not something one “learns” in adulthood, an honest leader can work to better communicate that integrity.

…truly great organizations recognize that these [leadership] traits and skills are required by employees at all levels.

The selection of competency as one of the top four traits sometimes surprises people who ascribe to the charismatic theory of leadership. The reality, however, is that people follow leaders who can help them achieve their goals. Followers know that no amount of charisma can overcome incompetence. The Canadian academic and managerial writer Henry Mintzberg succinctly captures this thought. He dismisses the debate about “What is the difference between a leader and a manager?” His thesis is who would want to work for a manager who isn’t a good leader or a leader who can’t manage.

So, if the critical attributes sought in leaders have held constant over time, what is the best way to ensure our institutions are led by women and men who possess these traits? Clearly recruitment, selection, culture and promotion play key roles. However, carefully designed leadership development programs can provide aspiring leaders insight into their current capabilities in these areas. Ideal development programs build self-awareness, giving leaders an understanding of their own motivations and the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others. Effective programs help leaders understand the motivations and aspirations of others and how to effectively manage their leader behaviour to help followers achieve their goals. In addition to classroom and/or on-line learning, students of leadership development need to practice their learning on the job and be supported by coaches, mentors and their organization.

The issues facing all organizations today are complex. Organizations will only survive if they develop these critical skills in their leaders. However, truly great organizations recognize that these traits and skills are required by employees at all levels. We are all leaders. Organizations that invest the time and money to give all employees the opportunities to build these capabilities will not only survive, they will prosper.

John RankinJohn Rankin, Director of Executive Education at the DeGroote School of Business, has held a number of senior positions in the private and public sectors. He was Vice-President Human Resources, Northern Telecom, Senior Vice-President Dealer Relations, Canadian Tire Corporation and President of George Brown College in Toronto. He has an MBA in Organizational Behaviour and Operations Research from McMaster University.

One thought on "The Four Character Traits of Great Leaders"

  1. Personality says:

    Interesting article, I was expecting to see fairness on the top 4 list. Thank you.

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