8 traits of effective leaders

Traits of a Leader

5.6 min read

Paul B. Thornton

How do we define leadership in the 21st century? One of the first systematic attempts to study leadership was the “trait theory.” Early trait theories were called “great-man” theories. They focused on the innate traits and characteristics possessed by great social, political, and military leaders (mostly men).

Ongoing research, however, shows that leaders come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. Some are highly educated, while others barely finished high school. Some are old, some are young. Some are outgoing while others are introverted. Some are male and many are female. Each leader is unique, but they likely share many of the following traits:


Leaders reflect a positive, upbeat, can-do attitude. They keep hope alive during tough times. They reframe problems into opportunities. Leaders see possibilities, while others only see the status quo.

“It can be done!”Sign President Ronald Reagan kept on his desk in the Oval Office. Dubbed “The Great Communicator,” Reagan was known for his optimism and ability to express ideas in a clear, eloquent, and quotable fashion.

“The Buck Starts Here!”—Sign on the desk of Donald Trump.

Leaders see opportunity and take action. Can leaders be overly optimistic? Yes. Effective leaders balance optimism with realism.


Leaders notice everything. There are three types of awareness:

  • Self-awareness – Great leaders know who they are and what they stand for. Leaders are aware of their core values, beliefs, and feelings, and have emotional intelligence. Aware of their emotions, they steadfastly channel them in positive directions.
  • Awareness of others – Leaders have a good sense of what others are thinking and feeling. They have empathy.
  • Awareness of the environment – Leaders see the big picture. They are aware of the important trends, problems, and opportunities that exist in the current environment.


Leaders have a track record of being honest and ethical. They say what they mean and mean what they say. Followers want leaders who are truthful, ethical, and principled.

Credibility is also based on competence. Competent leaders have up-to-date knowledge of the issues and a track record of success.


Leaders have a strong set of core values and beliefs. They hold firm beliefs about their mission (purpose), vision (long-term goals), and their values (what’s right and wrong). They also hold strong views about what’s most important (their priorities).

We expect leaders to take a position. We don’t expect wishy-washy opinions. “There are many qualities that make a great leader,” says Rudy Giuliani. “But having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristics of a great leader.”          


Leaders stand ready to step out of their comfort zones and try new things. Leaders promote change. They challenge the status quo and pursue their vision and goals.

Kouzes and Posner, in their classic book, The Leadership Challenge, see leaders as pioneers:

Leaders are pioneers. They are people who venture into unexplored territory. They guide us to new and often unfamiliar destinations. People who take the lead are the foot soldiers in the campaigns for change….The unique reason for having leaders—their differentiating function—is to move us forward. Leaders get us going someplace.

Confidence and Courage

Leaders have confidence in themselves and their followers. They face reality and deal with the problems and opportunities they see. Can leaders be too confident? Yes. Some leaders overestimate their abilities and underestimate the challenges they face.

However, leaders have the courage needed to stand up and speak up for their beliefs and values. They have the courage to stand alone when necessary. Some of the courageous things leaders do include:

a) Speaking up knowing they will be judged harshly.

b) Giving critical feedback to someone in power when they know it might have unfavorable consequences.

c) Saying “No” when everyone else is saying “Yes.”

d) Accepting responsibility for the shameful or embarrassing things they’ve done.

e) Staying and fighting for the greater good when everyone else is running away from the battle.

“Speak your mind—even if your voice shakes, says Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers. Author and thought leader Leslie C. Aguilar posts Kuhn’s quote on conference room walls when she conducts seminars on respectful communication in a diverse world. “Leaders find the courage to speak up even when they’re nervous,” says Aguilar. “They know that one voice can make a difference.”


Leaders feel passionate about their beliefs, ideas, and goals. Their energy and enthusiasm are contagious. They’re excited about the possibilities they see, so they are animated when speaking and taking action.


Leaders inspire us by what they say, how they say it, and what they do. Their words encourage and affirm. They deliver the message with energy, enthusiasm, and great conviction. And they inspire us by what they do. Leaders practice what they preach. Followers may question what the leader says, but they can’t deny what the leader does.

Drive and Determination

Ambitious and determined, leaders work through setbacks and obstacles. They never give up without a fight. Leaders are eager to take the steps needed to improve the current situation. They are excited about the possibilities they see, and can’t wait to make changes and effect improvement.

“It’s not enough to say we are doing our best. We must succeed in doing what is necessary.” This framed inscription sat on Winston Churchill’s desk during WWII. Churchill reputedly also kept the following aphorism on the wall above his desk: “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.”


Leaders focus on change. They see possibilities. They are optimistic and willing to take risks to achieve something better. Leaders have the courage and confidence to speak up for what’s right and needed. Their tremendous drive and determination allow them to see their visions become reality. They inspire us to change and achieve bigger goals.

About the author:

Paul B. Thornton is the author of numerous articles and 13 books on management and leadership. His latest book, Leadership—Off the Wall, highlights the guiding principles some well-known business and political leaders keep on their desks or post on their office walls. 

In addition to being a speaker and management/leadership trainer, he is a business professor at Springfield Technical Community College. In the last 20 years, he has trained over 10,000 people to be more effective managers and leaders. You can find out more about Paul at www.PBThornton.com and contact him at PThornton@stcc.edu

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  • Quote of the Day

    “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

    — Peter Drucker