Great Leadership: Skills and traits for highly effective leadership

There is a debate about whether highly effective leaders are born, or “made” as a result of training, experiences and the environment in which they function. Proponents of the “born to lead” theory, cite leaders, like Winston Churchill and Margret Thatcher, who didn’t have particularly distinguished leadership careers prior to emerging as leaders of distinction.

Through research and interviews, Forbes found that leaders exist on a continuum defined by a bell curve. The truly extra ordinary ones, as represented at the top of the curve, are indeed born leaders, while the bottom 10%-15% are marginal in their leadership abilities. However, the vast majority of leaders, as represented by the middle of the curve, are those who are “made”.

So what makes a successful leader, and what traits and qualities does it take to become an effective leader – whether born or formed.

The Making of Great Leaders

Regardless of the side of the “born or made” debate leadership watchers sit on, there is remarkable agreement on some of the characteristics needed to become highly effective leaders. Some of those traits include:

1. Self – confidence

Leadership is meant to inspire confidence in those who follow. If a leader is seen as unsure or uncertain about a particular course of action he/she is proposing for the team, then the rank and file will have doubts about whether they should follow the recommended path. Self-confidence will help instil unwavering confidence in their leaders’ actions.

2. Motivation

Effective leadership is about persistence, and the ability to remain optimistic even when the end is not clearly visible. Good leaders aren’t usually motivated by the same factors that inspire most ordinary folks. Goals like promotions, higher pay or a better work-life balance usually don’t stimulate a leader. Instead, they are challenged to do their best to change the course of history, fulfil a particular vision (either their own or that of someone they admire), or break new ground in whatever they are doing.

Unless you have deep motivation to accomplish what you set your mind to do, chances are that you won’t be able to inspire others to follow you.

3. Determination

The results of great leadership are often measured in terms of real accomplishments. Often, the road to accomplishment is fraught with setbacks and obstacles. True leaders have the courage and determination to pursue their endeavors by either surmounting or circumventing the barriers to their accomplishments.

4. Good Judgement

Every leader makes scores of decisions during the course of their day. However, the truly great ones stand out by making “judgement calls” that invariably turn out to be the right call. While many good leaders make what they call fact-based decisions, great leaders cultivate a sort of sixth-sense that helps them judge a situation even without all the facts readily available to them.

5. Risk Taking

Many management situations call for a “leap of faith.” Good leaders are often found to be adept at making calculated leaps of faith that end in success. They fully understand the risks of going in a particular direction, yet they are fully prepared to assume the consequences. Without this ability, many of the great leaders of today would likely not have achieved what they have accomplished.


6. Integrity

In leadership circles, a leader is only as successful as his or her ability to inspire and motivate the team they are leading – whether it is a team of 1 person, or a multinational company of 10,000 employees spanning across the world. Great leaders have the ability to appear honest, sincere and trustworthy across the team, in everything they say and do.

Without this trait of integrity, leaders may manage to get some followers to work in lock step with them through deceit and half-truths. However, lack of integrity will ultimately lead to mass desertions amongst team members.

7. Knowledge (or lack of it!)

Let’s face it: No one knows everything about everything! As hard as it is sometimes to believe, great leaders are seldom all-knowing about every aspect of the organizations they lead. While great leaders are knowledgeable about the core aspects of their domain, they often make up the deficiency by inherent traits they do possess.

To be an effective leader, you can get the knowledge you need by surrounding yourself with great people – who often know much more than you do about a specific subject. You can also exponentially boost the power of their knowledge by facilitating collaboration and cooperation across the organization – something that “ordinary followers” do not always excel at.

8. Big Picture

Great leadership is born from lofty ideas, and lofty ideas often come from leaders that dare to see the bigger picture. The ability to see way into the future, gives good leaders a unique insight into what they need to do now, in order to accomplish that future.
By focusing on the bigger picture, while letting the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) deal with the minutia, great leaders are able to produce real change within their organizations and their communities.The above traits of great leaders aren’t necessarily embraced and practiced with equal zeal by each and every leader. All great leaders do not act alike – they may each have their unique leadership styles. Some are “roll up your sleeves and take charge” types – always leading from the front, while others seldom let the limelight fall upon them, choosing instead to lead from the sidelines.

Regardless of which leadership style they choose to practice however, the core traits discussed here are common in great leaders.

Actions Make Leaders

While the “born to lead” camp cites credible research from sources like the American Psychological Association, showing that great leaders are born with brains that are “wired differently”, there is equally convincing evidence, from sources such as Psychology Today, which conclude that great leaders are “mostly made”. Regardless of which thought you subscribe to, one thing is clear: The essence of leadership is highlighted by a leaders’ actions.

Furthermore, in order for leaders to act “leader-like”, they need to display many of the characteristics discussed in this article. The only difference between the two types of leaders (born versus made), is that these traits come naturally for some, while other leaders work hard to learn and use them in their leadership activities.


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