Leadership qualities

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There are five vital leadership qualities:

  1. Intelligence
  2. Forward-looking
  3. Honest
  4. Competent
  5. Inspiring

These leadership qualities were taken from years of research in multiple countries that attempted to find out what character traits people want to see in the people they follow. While there are a number of other ways that leadership traits have been quantified, this seems like a particularly good metric because for people wanting to improve their skills at attracting followers. It doesn't matter how good of a leader you are in other respects, if you don't have followers you aren't a leader.



People want to follow someone who is intelligent. While the leadership quality of "competent" is closely related, there is a difference. Competence tells how good you are at a particular task or job. Intelligence measures your ability to deal with novel situations and general issues. When you demonstrate intelligence it helps people trust your point of view. This trust is a very important part of leadership and something most followers will want to see before really committing to your plan.

Intelligence is something that is hard to fake. If you're an idiot everyone's going to know it. If you really want to appear intelligent you are going to have to read, study and do all the other things that it takes to become an intelligent person. There is no shortcut to becoming intelligent. However there is a shortcut to appearing intelligent with the least amount of effort. In order to appear intelligent you need to be intelligent about things that the person viewing you feels are important. If you are definitely the world's most authoritative person on mothballs that may not make you look intelligent to someone who works for you. They may not value the expertise it takes to become an authority on mothballs. However there are areas where they do value expertise. These may or may not be related to work. Your ability to ask questions and be interested in the areas that they value can correlate strongly with their perception that you are intelligent.

If you are dealing with someone who is a very strong tennis fan, asking them questions about the game of tennis is likely to make you look more intelligent. Now there is a balance here. You can't just ask a bunch of stupid questions about tennis and look more intelligent. However asking question that allow them to use their expertise will raise their opinion of you. I'm not sure exactly what happened psychologically but I think it goes something like this: "I'm intelligent and I like tennis. This person is asking a lot of questions about tennis. They must liken this to therefore they must be intelligent just like me."

This is slightly unintuitive. It basically means you can look smart by asking questions. Most people don't realize this. Don't forget it isn't any question that will make you look smart. You have to ask intelligent questions about areas that the other person feels are important. Back to the mothball example, asking the tennis fan about the different chemical compounds used in mothballs is not to make you look smart.


The leadership quality of being forward-looking means having a constant sense of where your organization needs to go in the future. People don't want to follow someone with a few good ideas today, but no real clue of how to prepare for tomorrow. They want someone who plans ahead and has a road map for the future. This doesn't mean that you will never change course. In fact, changing the direction of your organization can be a powerful way to show that you have a plan for the future.


People prefer to follow someone with the leadership quality of honesty. It is hard to work for someone who isn't trustworthy. In volunteer situations this is even more important. If you offer a paycheck, people may stick with a dishonest leader simply because they want to make money and can't afford to leave. In volunteer situations, honesty becomes much more important. People aren't going to stick around if they don't feel like their leader is trust worthy. Even if they do stay, it is unlikely that they will completely buy in to the leader's plan because they are concerned about the integrity of the leader.

Honesty goes beyond simply not lying. People will watch the little things you do and use that Sherman whether or not you're honest. For example if you're the store owner and the person who checks in your inventory notices that she received 12 items and only paid for one you have an opportunity to be honest. The person checking in the inventory is going to watch how you respond. If you have them all the shipping company and correct the error you demonstrated honesty. If you tell them to ignore the error you've demonstrated dis-honesty.

And don't forget it's not enough to be honest. You have to demonstrate that you are honest. They need to see you being honest. In the above example if you correct the error after hours without anyone seeing you you haven't demonstrated honesty-they don't know about it so they assume that you are dishonest.


Competence is intelligence and experience applied to the specific problem domain that the leader faces. Supposedly at Microsoft, everyone reports to someone who could do their job. That means your boss is always someone who can help you and, chances are, do your job better than you can. People want this type of security. They want to know that hte person they are following is capable of understanding the issues they face and competent at solving those types of problems.

Even when they are following someone who isn't capable of doing their jobs, they like the security of knowing that the leader understands enough about their work to value what they do. Most people have been in situations where a manager had no idea what they did or how they did it. Very often this results in unrealistic goals and targets and frustration for everyone.


People want to be inspired. They want to feel that what they are doing matters and is important. That is why they look for someone to follow who has the leadership quality of being inspiring. It is much more fun to work for someone who helps motivate you and who makes your job exciting.

Trying to be inspiring can get a lot of people in trouble. You can't fake being inspiring. The foundation of being inspiring is having a clear vision and being able to communicate it. If you don't have these things you will probably never be inspiring and any attempts to be inspiring will just make you look foolish. We all have sat under people who have tried to be inspiring but have no skill at it and know exactly what I'm talking about.

Being excited about your work and the work of the people beneath you can go a long ways toward being inspiring. Showing people that what they are doing really matters is another good step. Sometimes this involves showing them the results of what they do. This may mean bringing in a customer this particularly happy. It may mean posting letters of commendation that you and your team have received. It's a matter of showing people that what they are doing is important.