Attributes of a Great Leader: Would You Make the Cut?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What makes a great leader? What qualities would you ascribe to a leader you’d be willing to follow?

Since the mid-1980s, Barry Posner and James Kouzes, the authors of The Leadership Challenge, have been conducting studies asking people in both business and government what qualities they value in a leader. They’ve found that consistently people want the same qualities in a leader whose leadership they would be willing to follow.

Here are the four attributes of a great leader, according to Posner and Kouzes.

What Makes a Great Leader?

The Leadership Challenge is a field guide for becoming the kind of leader that other people want to follow. International bestselling authors and longtime research partners James Kouzes and Barry Posner have compiled thousands of case studies and millions of responses to surveys over decades and used them to distill leadership into five overall principles. Each principle is supported by two guidelines (for 10 guidelines in total) that offer concrete steps for how to achieve outstanding leadership. 

The five principles of leadership and their associated guidelines are based on two primary understandings: 

1. Leadership is a relationship between those who lead and those who follow. A leader isn’t a leader without a team, and even the greatest leaders don’t achieve their goals by themselves, but instead must enlist the help of a team. Therefore, when you work to develop your leadership, focus primarily on developing your relationships with your team members.

A relationship between a leader and a constituent must be a positive, respectful, and mutually beneficial one. You can’t force people to follow you; they must do so willingly. An employee who doesn’t believe in your mission or your leadership might work for you for a while, but if they don’t truly want to, they’ll eventually move on to another organization. Additionally, while they’re working for you, if they don’t truly want to be there, they’re unlikely to put in a great effort.

2. Leadership is a skill—one that can be learned, practiced, and mastered by anyone willing to put in the effort. People sometimes mistakenly believe that a person is either born with leadership skills or isn’t. However, leadership is a set of behaviors, beliefs, and processes that can be learned and practiced by anyone. 

Four Characteristics of a Great Leader

According to Posner and Kouzes, there are four attributes of a great leader: honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-thinking.

1. Honest: More than any other characteristic, people list honesty as an important quality of a leader. Other words they use to describe honesty include “truthful,” “ethical,” and “authentic.” Honesty is considered a personal quality more than a professional one, and its importance illustrates that people want to follow leaders they can personally respect and identify with (if you follow a leader who’s viewed as dishonest, your own reputation gets associated with dishonesty). 

2. Competent: The second-most-often cited quality is competence. People want their leader to be capable, effective, and experienced; no one wants to follow someone who may lead them into failure. Leaders aren’t expected to be experts in everything, but they should have a solid understanding of their business and their organization—its structure, procedures, culture, and people. 

3. Inspiring: The emotional energy that a leader puts forward will infect her whole team. A leader must be able to communicate her vision in such a way that other people understand her passion and believe that it will improve lives. If she is positive, excited, and energetic, her team will be too. If she shows little emotion, or displays anxiety, uncertainty, or discouragement, her team won’t feel enthusiastic.   

4. Forward-thinking: People want their leaders to have a clear idea of where they’re headed. They want them to envision a better future and work toward it, rather than merely living with the current status quo. Leaders are not expected to be able to predict the future, but rather, should have a meaningful vision and plan for where they want their organization to head.  

In general, then, people want to feel their leaders are truthful, know what they’re doing, have a positive attitude, and have a sense of direction. 

It Adds Up to Credibility

These characteristics correspond closely with another measure: what makes people feel an information source is credible, whether that’s a newspaper, doctor, business leader, or politician. Researchers have found that people will judge a source to be credible if it has these qualities:

  • Trustworthiness
  • Expertise
  • Dynamism

Notice how closely these terms hew to the top three characteristics listed above of good leaders: honesty, competence, and inspiration. In other words, when people see these qualities of leadership, they judge that leader to be credible

Credibility is crucial to leadership because if people don’t believe in you, they won’t believe in your mission, message, or strategy. Leaders therefore must protect their credibility so that they can inspire loyalty, enthusiasm, and effort from their employees, customers, and investors. 

When researchers ask people what exactly it means for a leader to be credible, the responses vary in wording but typically are some version of “Leaders do what they say they’ll do.” Therefore, as a leader, when you promise something, you must follow through on it or risk losing your credibility. 

Secondary Leadership Qualities

Other qualities of leadership that study respondents listed included being supportive, fair-minded, courageous, cooperative, and imaginative. The differences between what people prioritized in a leader were often dependent on who those people were, and what leadership skills their particular jobs called for. For example:

  • People in health care organizations more often listed caring than did people in other industries.
  • Military personnel more often listed loyalty than others. 
  • Academics valued intelligence more highly. 

Older respondents named self-controlled more often than younger respondents did.

Attributes of a Great Leader: Would You Make the Cut?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Leadership Challenge summary:

  • A field guide for becoming the kind of leader that other people want to follow
  • The five principles of leadership and their associated guidelines
  • Why before you can lead others, you must have a clear understanding of yourself

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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