Leading, Not Managing August 28, 2018

5 common traits of the best business leaders (and how you can work on them)

5 common traits of the best business leaders and how you can work on them

What makes a leader truly great? Each year, thousands of books are written on leadership, seminars are attended all over the world and business leaders go in search of the holy grail: how to become the best leader they can be.

While there are numerous types of leadership - and even more variation in the qualities a leader can possess - there are some definitive traits shared by inspirational leaders; traits which connect leaders as disparate as Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher.

So what are the 5 most common traits of great leaders? And how can you develop them? We asked five Vistage Chairs for their insights...


Empathy is a vital element of effective leadership; without it, you stand to swiftly lose friends and alienate people. As Vistage Chair, Adam Harris, says: ‘You need to show your human side in order to connect with people.’

This ability to understand another person’s perspective and feelings makes you more approachable and trustworthy, and is likely to elicit both loyalty and reciprocal behaviour in the people around you. But it’s not just about giving off good vibes or creating better engagement with employees - there’s also a business value in being empathetic.

When you’re leading a team, the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes can help you accurately predict what they want, how they feel and how they might react to changes or challenges. So, how can you be more empathetic?

The good news is that we’re all hardwired to feel empathy. Research by the University of Virginia monitored brain activity under the perceived threat of an electric shock. They found that human brains respond in an almost identical way whether the self is under threat or a friend. However, the threat of shock to a stranger revealed almost no response in the same areas of the brain. Herein lies both the problem and the solution.

We all have the capability to be empathetic, but true empathy requires a deep understanding of the individuals around us. Otherwise, you could fall prey to the False Consensus Effect: overestimating how many people share the same values, beliefs and opinions as you.

To avoid this phenomenon and become more authentically empathetic, take time to ask questions and really get to know your employees. Finding out what drives people, what they find challenging or what they specifically enjoy about their job will help you gain a clear perspective of how they view the workplace - and crucially - how it differs to your experience.

Becoming a more empathetic leader isn’t just a nice to have. Apart from promoting a positive, healthy work culture, research has shown that empathy in the workplace improves productivity, increases retention and leads to happier employees.


Leaders have to make decisions. If you don’t make them, the term ‘leader’ is possibly a misnomer. Whether you’re running a country or a two-person start-up, decisions facilitate change, drive growth and create momentum. Vistage chair, Dave Pepper, believes the best leaders are those who are ‘consistent and focussed in all they do, particularly decision making’.

While most of us would agree with this sentiment, the fact is, being decisive can be hard. Often we’re so afraid of making the wrong choice, we end up with decision paralysis and simply do nothing.

In an era of endless information, choice and distraction, the misconception is that if we prevaricate and keep mulling it over, we’ll make a better decision in the end. Not only is this untrue, it actually makes us miss the bigger picture.

Research by Harvard Business Review found that one of the four things which sets successful CEOs apart from the rest is their ability to decide ‘with speed and conviction.’ According to the study, this quality makes it 12 times more likely for a CEO to be high-performing. It’s not about the outcome of specific decisions, rather consistent decisiveness ‘even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains’.

In essence, the decision isn’t between one choice and another, rather between action and inaction. As a leader, making any decision is better than no decision at all, so how can you become more decisive?

It might sound obvious but the best way is to just dive in and embrace the fear. Whether you’re creating a new marketing campaign, launching a product or delivering a pitch, don’t wait for perfection, don’t keep on micro-planning - just do it. Your competitors are under the same time pressure, so failure to act quickly could mean you miss the boat.

Another important factor is clarity. If you know what your objective is, the path to getting there becomes more apparent. What do you want to achieve? Why do you want to achieve it? How will you do it? Answering these questions will make your goals and reasons clear, which in turn will help you make faster decisions.

And don’t sweat the small stuff. Steve Jobs famously wore the same black turtleneck every day, and Barack Obama only wore identical grey or blue suits. This removal of trivial decisions will help you focus all your mental energy on the important ones and prevent decision fatigue.


The unsung hero of the leadership traits, humility brings with it a whole spectrum of other attributes (such as being a good listener) that can transform good leaders into great leaders.

Described by psychologist Dr Robert Hogan as ‘the psychological opposite of narcissism’, humility is a much more powerful trait than it might first appear.

Humble leaders such as Alan Mulally (the man who saved Ford) or Apple’s ‘quiet’ CEO, Tim Cook, tend to create work environments which are open, team-focussed and democratic. This, in turn, leads to better employee engagement and improved productivity.

Humble leaders focus on the bigger picture rather than their own egos. The direction and success of the company is paramount and they prioritise this above self-validation. Instead of thinking they have all the answers, leaders who possess this trait are often willing to listen to others as well as acknowledging when they’re wrong. Naturally, in business a proportion of decisions will turn out to be unsuccessful, so this willingness to admit fault and change direction is invaluable.

Humility in leadership also facilitates what Vistage Chair, Peter Hyson, dubs ‘tolerance of imperfection’. As he explains, good leaders ‘recognise that very few people come to work intending to do a bad job. They encourage mistakes if they come from trying new things but they also never turn a blind eye to underperformance and instead provide support, training and challenges’.

In other words, instead of being self-obsessed, humble leaders are outward looking; they listen, they take counsel, they react. If you think you need to work on developing humility, there are a few simple changes you can make.

The first is remembering you’re not the finished article - nobody is - you still have plenty to learn, so talk (and listen) to the people at the front line who may know things you’re unaware of. If the opposite of curiosity is disinterest, be aware that a lack of interest could easily be interpreted as arrogance.

Another trait humble leaders usually have is the ‘servant leader’ mentality. In other words, be prepared to get your hands dirty and don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. Peter Hyson believes leaders should ‘live servant leadership by working for the good of their staff and business, not themselves or their ego.’

Finally, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability by being accountable and owning your mistakes. Far from making you seem weak, showing your fallibility will only make you more human in the eyes of your employees.


Clarity of thought, purpose and communication are vital in leadership. Mastering this trait will help you determine what you want, how to communicate it to your team and what to do in order to reach your objective.

Then there’s the effect clarity has on others. Being able to communicate a clear vision is magnetic. It has the power to engage and influence people; something which strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a leader. In the words of Vistage chair, Jan Lloyd, ‘if you haven’t got clarity of where you’re going and why, it’s very difficult for people to line up against that and find motivation.’

In essence, clarity provides a road map for your business journey - it focuses your mind on the end goal and helps you establish the best means of getting there. So how can you achieve greater clarity?

Road map for business journey

By keeping things simple. If you can state your company vision in one sentence, don’t opt for ten. And stay consistent by reminding employees of the vision regularly. In doing this, you ensure everyone is on board and moving towards the same goal. When you have clarity of vision, you have the power to share your passion and ignite that same passion in others, which leads us neatly on to…


If you aren’t excited about what you’re doing and where you’re going, how can you expect anyone else to care? Passion provides context for all the other leadership traits. If clarity is the map, passion is the fuel that will sustain your efforts.

Passionate leaders are committed, immersed and fully engaged. This dedication and energy has a profound effect on other people. When you believe in something wholeheartedly, others will also. In short, passion is infectious, and it has many beneficial side-effects, such as positivity, energy and motivation.

Robert Kriegel’s book, If It Ain’t Broke, Break It, cites a study which demonstrates the value of passion in business and leadership. The research followed the career choices of 1,500 individuals over 20 years.

Of the 1,500, 83% chose the careers that would make them the most money, in the hope of pursuing what they loved later, while the remaining 17% chose to follow what they felt passionate about. After two decades, 101 of the individuals had become millionaires. Incredibly, only one of them was from the 83% - the rest were all from the group who had followed their passions. So how can you be like the 17%?

Look for the joy in everyday life, reconnect with why you’re doing what you’re doing and focus on igniting passion and energy in the people around you - and always keep discovering by developing a deeper understanding of your organisation and your employees. Ultimately, passion is about desire - the desire to do the best you can for your business and your team.


Being a leader isn’t always easy but the definition of leadership is simple: it’s your job to make things happen. How you do that is entirely up to you - there is no holy grail - but there are certain traits that can make success more likely. And then there’s the journey. Leaders that are decisive, clear, humble, empathetic and passionate don’t just hit targets, they empower and inspire others along the way.

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