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Knowing the Characteristics of What Makes a Great Leader (And How to Apply These to Your Leadership Style)

There is an infinite amount of published literature on what it takes to be an exceptional leader, from scholarly studies to biographies, webinars, and everything in between.

But the truth is, being a strong leader is really not that complicated. To help you understand what a great leader truly looks like, we’ll break down some of the defining characteristics these figures have and how you can embody them.

Leader vs. Boss – What’s the difference?

Many leaders step into their roles and are presented with these two questions, “What’s the difference between a boss and a leader, and what makes a leader great?” There are many differences between a boss and a leader, but what it all boils down to is trust, respect, and accountability and whether you view your role as hierarchal or team-oriented.
Some significant differences between bosses and leaders are:

  • Bosses discipline; leaders mentor
  • Bosses explain; leaders demonstrate and inspire
  • Bosses command; leaders influence and motivate
  • Bosses are above the team; leaders are within the team
  • Bosses delegate tasks; leaders delegate authority and autonomy

Characteristics of a truly great leader

Displaying integrity and honesty

Being driven by ethical values means acting with integrity, honesty, and respect in all aspects of one’s life, including the workplace. Leaders should communicate these values to their team in an effort to set the foundation of the environment they wish to create and the behaviour they expect from others.
Leading with integrity and making morally correct decisions will undoubtedly motivate your team to follow your leadership, gain respect and trust from others, and establish your credibility as a leader and member of the organization.

Honesty also plays a significant role in developing leadership qualities. Communicating frequently and being transparent about the information you’re passing along not only makes your team feel comfortable about having open conversations with you but it also makes them feel valued. This sets the tone for your environment and demonstrates that it prioritizes psychological safety.

Read more: Why Transparency Is Crucial for Company Culture

Values relationships

Getting to know your team on a deeper level and demonstrating to them how much you value them not only helps you earn their trust but also allows you to learn more about them as people and improve office relationships across the board.

Leaders should designate time to get to know each team member as an individual so they may build relationships with them on a personal level. That’s not to say you’re supposed to be everyone’s best friend; rather, foster positive work relationships to ensure your team members feel valued.

Supports and facilitates professional development

Employees tend to seek positions within organizations that foster career advancement, meaning they will be receptive to leaders who present them with opportunities to grow and develop in their professional careers.

Good leaders get to know their team’s strengths and weaknesses and invest time in training and discussions to help ensure they are as successful in their role as possible. Supporting your team to develop to their full potential benefits them as a professional as they acquire new skills and experience, but it also directly impacts the organization.

Attributes success to their team

One of the many secrets to strong leadership is humility and understanding that your team’s success is your success as well, and vice versa. When you work in tandem as a team towards a set of collective goals rather than maintaining a “Me vs. Them” attitude, everyone wins.

Creates a safe space for open communication

The majority of conflicts both in and out of the workplace can, most often, be easily resolved by communication.

Whether it’s encouraging fresh ideas, being open to suggestions, and offering or accepting constructive criticism, creating a workplace culture that encourages open and honest communication without fear of retribution helps build trust and prevents conflict from arising.

Practices active listening

Whether feedback is positive, negative, or a little bit of both, a leader must always actively listen to what their employee is trying to tell them. Have a one-on-one (or group session if it’s appropriate) and give them the floor to express their thoughts without judgement, interruption, or backlash.

Know when to remain silent to allow them to collect their thoughts and express themselves, but also feel for appropriate times to ask thoughtful questions to solicit more information. Maintain eye contact, remain calm, empathetic, respectful, and open-minded throughout these sessions, and make it clear that you are there to support them and appreciate their feedback.

Holds themselves accountable

A true leader never shifts blame. Accountability and ownership of responsibility are admirable traits only truly great leaders exhibit. It shows your employees that they are safe to make mistakes and take accountability for their actions, and while there may be repercussions, they are fair and intended to support, not punish.

By being accountable, you’re setting the tone that there are high standards of work but also a foundation of psychological safety. Creating an environment that values and responds well to accountability will have significant benefits to performance, productivity, morale, job satisfaction, and trust among team members.

Empathetic employers

Arguably the number one quality employees seek most in leadership is empathy. While it’s clear why this trait is so highly regarded, unfortunately, it’s not the easiest or most intuitive skill to learn. Many leaders have been promoted into their roles on the basis of performance, interpersonal relationships, and other criteria, but they haven’t received much of the required training to lead empathetically.

In today’s climate, leading under a heavy fist of order-giving and micro-managing is an easy way to curb productivity, cripple morale, lose your team’s faith, and trigger higher turnover rates in your department.

Instead, earn your team’s respect and trust by being gentle, genuine, understanding, and treating them as the autonomous adults that they are. Share your common human experiences, connect on the highs and lows, and demonstrate that while you are the boss, you’re still approachable and empathetic to their needs as people.

Encourages their team to take ownership of their ideas

In order for your team to be fully successful, it’s important for them to feel comfortable and confident about expressing ideas without fear of having their suggestions dismissed.

Show that you value what they have to say by regularly asking for their opinions, praising their honesty, and taking what they have to say seriously.

Embraces failure

Failure is inevitable and isn’t always a bad thing. There will always be an opportunity to learn and grow in the face of failure, especially as a leader. How you handle your mistakes or failures will speak volumes to your employees and how they regard you as their leader.

It’s safe to say, avoid negative reactions such as anger, outbursts, blaming, scapegoating, avoidance, and other examples of poor management. It’s important to demonstrate that you’re transparent, accountable, and open to improvement while finding solutions, being graceful and humble, and seeking feedback from your team to help you navigate through the other side to success. Together, identifying where things went wrong and how to improve going forward will go a long way.

Values DEI and applies these values to their leadership style

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical for business resilience, productivity, growth, and financial sustainability. That’s why leaders have a social responsibility to prioritize their organization’s DEI efforts by adapting these values into their management style.

Leaders who unlock the full potential of diversity, equity, and inclusion are positioned to experience a wave of improved departmental benefits such as higher productivity and performance rates and increased job satisfaction among their team. They can also take pride in knowing they are contributing to the revival and transformation of the modern workplace.

Read more: How to Improve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace

Read more: Recognizing and Responding to Racial Discrimination in the Office

Read more: How to Foster a Gender-Inclusive Workplace

Being an exceptional leader is not difficult, but it does require emotional maturity and consistent personal development. By leading by example, building up those around you, and creating an environment where everyone thrives and has the confidence to communicate openly, you not only gain the trust of your team, but you also grow as a leader.

If your organization is experiencing conflict, consulting with a neutral mediator will resolve distracting, challenging situations and empower all participants involved to settle on an agreeable solution and continue being productive within the organization.

At Global Mindful Solutions, we have established a process that aims to provide insightful, comprehensive solutions with a compassionate and unbiased approach. This allows all participants to focus on getting back to work and continue making a positive contribution to their organization while leading a fulfilling role in their careers.

Contact Global Mindful Solutions to get started with neutral, knowledgeable, and effective investigation, mediation, and facilitation services.


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343 Preston Street, Suite 1100, Ottawa, ON, K1S 1N4

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