Leadership Competencies

15 great leadership qualities and characteristics

what makes a great leader

Leadership encompasses far more than just a position or title; it also includes personal qualities and demonstrable skills.

So, what makes a great leader? What capabilities are needed to take your leadership skills from good to great?

Vistage speakers Amy Ancira, VP of Executive Search and Managing Director of HireBetter, and John Fenton, Owner of John J. Fenton Executive Coaching, weigh in on the 15 qualities and characteristics that make a great leader.


1. Empathy

“Forty years ago, when I started in business, it used to be that you showed up for work, put your head down, and went. The pandemic, and the blurring of the lines between work and life, removed that division,” says Fenton.

Great leaders recognize employees are real people dealing with real challenges in their lives, including work. “Meet people where they are,” he adds.

Help employees pursue mental, physical and emotional health in all areas of their lives, so they can reach their full professional and personal potential.

2. Authenticity

“Great leaders can show up and be their authentic selves,” says Ancira. “We’ve left behind the old ways of putting on a workplace persona, and we can be open and honest about the things that are really going on in our lives. Doing this unlocks people’s potential because we can all show up as our true selves and not pretend ones.”

This attitude inspires creativity, connection and productivity across the organization.

3. Self-Awareness

“Being able to accurately assess yourself, your actions, and how you’re experienced by others in the organization, and make shifts as needed is crucial to be a great leader,” says Ancira.

Self-awareness means you can be “fully present in the moment to whatever is going on inside and outside of you, and how it affects those around you,” Fenton explains.

Employees feel and feed off your mood consciously or subconsciously.

“Being aware of this and able to regulate it to fit the moment is key,” he adds.

4. Courage

“It takes courage to lead at all — to stand up, make decisions and be vulnerable. And many times you make decisions with imperfect data,” says Fenton.

Great leaders have the courage to make those decisions, take calculated risks, pursue new, untested problem-solving methods and accept responsibility for the outcome.

5. Integrity

Great leaders are committed to doing the right thing, even when it’s hard. They are honest with their team members, clients and stakeholders and maintain transparency in their decision-making.

Integrity builds trust and synergy because when team members see their leader demonstrating honesty and transparency, they are more engaged and committed to their work.

6. Flexibility

“Because even the best-laid plans never actually work out, great leaders are always looking for different opportunities and solutions, which can come from anywhere in your organization,” Fenton shares.

They adapt by quickly adjusting plans and strategies to respond to market and organization changes. When team members and employees see a leader who can confidently adapt to shifting circumstances, they are inspired and more confident in their abilities as well.

7. Lifelong Learners

Flexibility doesn’t mean a great leader has all the answers; it means they know how to find the answer they need, which is why they never stop learning.

They understand that the world is constantly changing and acknowledge the importance of staying updated with the latest trends and best practices. They invest in their development by welcoming coaching opportunities, attending conferences, reading books, and seeking new experiences directly and indirectly related to their position and industry.

8. Delegation

A good leader will assign a task and step back. A great leader remains a resource for employees to ask questions and receive coaching without micromanaging or becoming overly involved.

Ancira states that “great leaders allow people to have autonomy in their work.” That autonomy builds trust and allows employees to grow their skills and confidence.

“Delegation allows for some white space to emerge in your calendar,” adds Fenton.

He advises leaders to use this time to think, stare into space and contemplate. When you engage in this passive meditation, you open yourself up for creativity and innovation instead of just grinding out the next task or being busy for busy’s sake.

9. Commitment 

Top leaders don’t just delegate every task; they also have a strong work ethic and are committed to achieving their goals. They understand that success requires hard work and are willing to put in the time and effort necessary. By rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, they meet the high standards set for themselves and their team, demonstrating their commitment to the company’s mission.

10. Vision

A major aspect of leadership includes creating a vision for the business by deciding where the organization is going and getting others on board. “The pandemic has exposed a cultural need for more than just a bottom line, profit-driven leadership,” says Fenton. “Being purpose-driven is key. From baby boomers to Gen Z, we all want to do work that contributes to something bigger than ourselves and can make a difference.”

11. Influence

“Great leaders set the vision and bring people along, rallying them around the meaning and purpose of the organization,” explains Ancira. They inspire others to follow their lead by leveraging their skills and motivating employees to work hard to reach their full potential.

“It’s been said before, but it’s especially true in leadership, ‘Actions speak louder than words,’” adds Fenton.

12. Team-building and collaboration

Team building is more than retreats and games — it’s forming authentic workplace relationships. “Great leaders get to know their people one on one and are engaged and supportive to show them they are valued as a human being first, and then as a team member and employee,” says Fenton.

These types of leaders use their strong team-building skills to assess the strengths and weaknesses of those around them. This knowledge helps get the right people in the right seats and assign tasks or responsibilities wisely, playing to the collective strengths of the team and moving the organization closer to its goals.

13. Strong communication

One of the most important qualities of great leaders is the ability to portray positive and negative messages effectively.

“Being able to communicate the negative things, and provide constructive feedback and coaching in real time so employees can learn from their mistakes and create new opportunities is key,” says Ancira.

Great leaders also consistently convey their gratitude and appreciation for their team members and employees.

“It’s not about favoritism; it’s about recognizing people’s skills, roles, and contributions,” Ancira explains. But these leaders are not just effective speakers; they are also thoughtful listeners. They take time to understand the perspectives and concerns of their team members and provide feedback that is constructive and helpful.

“Practice listening more, and let silence do the heavy lifting,” says Fenton.

14. Accountability

Accountability is the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions and decisions. Ancira believes that “great leaders can admit when they are wrong.” They hold themselves and their team members accountable for their actions and decisions. “The buck starts and stops with leaders,” adds Fenton.

15. Resilience

Great leaders possess the ability to learn from difficulty and defeat because of their willingness to accurately assess themselves, continually learn from their experiences, and rely on the skills and capabilities of those around them. In a world where nothing goes perfectly all the time, this resilience is incredibly important.

Great Leaders Lead

“We live in a world where people expect, want, and need more in the workplace,” says Ancira.

Employees want leaders who actively demonstrate these 15 qualities and inspire them to reach their full potential. Cultivating the leadership characteristics discussed in this article will help you become a leader who your employees trust and want to follow.

“When they trust you, they can — and will — do much more than if they are suspicious, undervalued, or afraid,” explains Ancira.

No person has all these skills already, but they can all be learned and developed. So, make the conscious decision to invest in your growth and start building the skills necessary to become a great leader today.


Related Resources

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Category: Leadership Competencies

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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