The 5 Most Important Characteristics of a Leader

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thou Shall Prosper" by Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the important characteristics of a leader? How do your leadership skills determine your success?

The most successful people are those who lead others. For instance, the CEO of a company is surely considered more successful than an entry-level employee.

If you want to take your business to the next level, embrace these important characteristics of a leader.

Become a Leader

There’s no one correct way to lead other people—the best way to lead is to embrace whatever leadership means to you. For example, being a leader could mean that you’re an executive officer at a large corporation; it might also mean that you inspire others with art or speeches, or that you’re a spiritual leader in your community. 

(Shortform note: One way to figure out what kind of leadership suits you is to ask yourself what you’re naturally good at—in other words, how are you best able to influence and inspire other people? In Limitless, life coach Jim Kwik says that everybody is a genius at something, and realizing your full potential is largely a matter of identifying where your genius lies. So, a corporate executive might be what Kwik calls a tempo genius—someone who’s good at long-term planning. On the other hand, an artist might be a blaze genius, whose ideas spread through their audience like wildfire. You’re most likely to be an effective leader if you find or create a leadership role that lets you use your personal type of genius.)

Thou Shall Prosper by Daniel Lapin says that, while there’s no singular definition of leadership, these are the most important characteristics of a leader:

Characteristic 1: An Inspirational Vision 

Lapin notes that to motivate others to follow them, leaders must have a clear vision or goal that they’re working toward, and they must be able to keep others focused on that goal. For example, the story of Exodus says that Moses led the Jews through the desert for 40 years based on the strength of his vision of the Promised Land: a new homeland for the Jewish people, promised to them by God, where they would live happily.

(Shortform note: An inspirational goal or vision can be motivating, but getting people to follow you often means creating a sense of urgency as well. In other words, don’t just tell people what you’re going to do, also tell them why you’re doing it, and why it needs to happen right now. For example, in the business fable Our Iceberg Is Melting, the leaders of a colony of penguins spur their followers to action by explaining that global warming is about to destroy their home; therefore, the entire colony needs to immediately work together to find and move to a new location.) 

Characteristic 2: The Will to Engage in Necessary Conflicts 

It’s not enough to have a goal; you must also have the will and the ability to fight for that goal. According to Lapin, this often means confronting people who don’t approve of your ideas in order to win them over, but it can also mean confronting your employees or your colleagues when their work isn’t meeting your expectations. 

(Shortform note: The will to fight for your goals and beliefs arguably isn’t just a good trait for a leader—it’s a good trait for anyone. As Mark Manson says in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, one way that you control your life is by deciding what you’re willing to struggle for, and how much hardship you’re willing to endure. Further, as Lapin notes, this struggle may involve confrontation with others—something many people fear. To become more comfortable with confronting others and fighting for what you believe in, consider noting down all of the good things that might happen if you speak up. You’ll likely find that these benefits outweigh the possible negative outcomes of confrontation that you’re afraid of.)

Characteristic 3: The Ability to Follow 

Counterintuitively, successful leaders must be followers as well. Lapin explains that even the person at the top of a hierarchy has something to follow—for example, a religious leader must follow the teachings of their religion, while the CEO of a company must follow that company’s mission statement. 

(Shortform note: Lapin discusses following principles and ideas, but sometimes great leaders may also need to follow other people. This is because nobody can be the best at everything—not even the strongest of leaders. Leaders who allow themselves to follow others are admitting their own shortcomings and working to improve them. “Following” in this case might look like a leader stepping back and allowing experts to take charge of a difficult situation, or it could mean that a leader studies and learns from people whose skills they want to emulate.)

Characteristic 4: Faith 

Lapin notes that this means having both faith in God and faith in yourself. First, Judaism teaches that trusting in God is crucial for success in any endeavor—in Judaic stories, people who follow God’s will invariably succeed and earn great rewards, while those who oppose God are ruined or wiped out. Second, when you have faith in yourself, you’ll naturally project a confident air. That confidence will cause others to also have faith in you—therefore, they’ll follow where you lead.

(Shortform note: Some research indicates that faith in God and faith in yourself are closely linked. Several studies have found that prayer and religious faith are associated with increased self-esteem. The researchers concluded that belief in a loving, supportive God who protects you and guides your actions leads to this boost in self-confidence.)

Characteristic 5: The Ability to Leverage the Power of Facts 

Faith and self-confidence are necessary for leaders, but they aren’t a substitute for knowledge. According to Lapin, to make good decisions, you must have the relevant facts about the current situation. For example, if you’re the head of a new tech startup, you should have a thorough understanding of the hardware or software your company makes, entrepreneurship and effective business practices, and the current state of the technology industry (so you know your competition). That background knowledge will help you to make effective business decisions and ensure that your startup becomes profitable. 

(Shortform note: If you’re researching the facts of your current situation online, ensure that you’re using an accurate source: A lot of information found online is unreliable and could lead you astray. As you search, ask, “How do I know I can trust this source?” For example, is the source considered to be reliable and relatively unbiased? Is the website updated regularly to keep up with new information? Where did the information come from; an expert on the topic, or just someone who has a blog or a YouTube channel? Do other sources confirm the information or refute it?)  

The 5 Most Important Characteristics of a Leader

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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