Top ten characteristics of great leaders

When you think of great leaders, who’s the first person who comes to mind?

And what characteristics make (or made) them a great leader?

These are the top ten characteristics of great leaders identified by a group of colleagues and clients I surveyed. See how this list compares to what you believe is most important for a person to excel as a leader:


Great leaders see things as they can be, not just as they are. They work toward a clear and powerful picture of the future they’re trying to create, no matter what circumstances they find themselves, and the people they’re leading, in now.


A clear understanding of present conditions is also part of the great leader’s repertoire. These leaders can face the facts, whatever they are. What’s more, they insist on finding and using the facts in order to see what the organization’s challenges really are – not just what they’d like to believe, or have the people they lead believe – are the challenges ahead.


Fearlessness without brashness, foolishness or rashness is a hallmark of the excellent leader. He or she is not afraid of the gap they must close, leading an often fearful group across it. In fact, highly effective leaders are very motivated by the disparity between “what is” and “what can be, what will be.” They convey a sense of mission powerfully to the people who must close the gap with them.


Of the many paths open to the organization – if many paths are available – great leaders can see and choose the actions that are most likely to succeed. They can envision and anticipate what is likely to happen in the future, often as a result of the course of action they choose now.

Decisive when the time is right

Great leaders ensure that they have the best information possible to guide them through the decisions they must make. Their decision-making processes are well-tuned, and highly effective, the result of continuous improvement of the decision-making process, itself.


Highly effective leaders have a bias for action. They work in a focused, purposeful way, changing the organization, step by step, leading it steadily to far better circumstances and results in times ahead.


Plans are an organization’s intended path of action, its desired use of available resources directed toward reaching a goal. But if circumstances require change while the work is underway, effective leaders have the strength to move their organization to a better course of action instead.


Great leaders are driven by their vision, yet it is their ability to rise above great uncertainty and to lead in the face of uncertainty, that creates legendary tales of leadership. Their greatness may not always be fully appreciated until long after the work is done, and the battles are fully won.

Inspires respect

Excellent leaders lead with integrity, and lead by example, as well as by inspiration. They expect the same of themselves as they do of their followers.  They’re not “above the law” just because they create the rules and work structures in the organization. The rules they advocate for others also apply to them – and everyone sees and knows it.

Great communicator

Powerful, effective leaders know when and how to communicate, no matter what’s going on with their followers, and what pressure they are under. Such leaders know when to observe, when to listen, when to talk. They use all the vital communication skills of leadership well. They also know that the most powerful communication of all is their attitude and their action – far more than what they say in any circumstance.