Character Traits of Successful Leaders


“Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing.” — Warren Bennis, Ph.D.

In a debate about leadership in Africa few days ago, I realised that what Africa lacks is not leadership but leaders with the right kind of character and traits to solve the challenges of this time. As an incurable optimist, I also believe that we can start to learn the right set of characters, values and traits that will enhance leadership qualities in each one of us.  Leaders determine the ultimate effectiveness of an organisation, as the character and skills that they bring determine the way problems are solved and tasks are accomplished.

Leaders do not command excellence, they build excellence. Excellence is “being all you can be” within the bounds of doing what is right for your organisation. To reach excellence, you must first be a leader of good character. You must do everything you are supposed to do. Organisations will not achieve excellence by figuring out where they want to go, then having leaders do whatever they have to in order to get the job done, and then hope their followers act with good character.

This type of thinking is backwards. Pursuing excellence should not be confused with accomplishing a job or task. When you do planning, you do it by backwards planning. But you do not achieve excellence by backwards planning. Excellence starts with leaders of good and strong character who engage in the entire process of leadership. And the first process is being a person of honourable character.

Character development

Character develops over time. Many think that much of a person’s character is formed early in life. However, we do not know exactly how much or how early character develops. But, it is safe to claim that character does not change quickly. A person’s observable behaviour is an indication of his character. This behaviour can be strong or weak, good or bad.

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A person with strong character shows drive, energy, determination, self-discipline, willpower, and nerve. He sees what he wants and goes after it. He attracts followers. On the other hand, a person with weak character shows none of these traits. He does not know what he wants. His traits are disorganised; he vacillates and is inconsistent. He will attract no followers.

A strong person can be good or bad. A gang leader is an example of a strong person with a bad character, while an outstanding community leader is one with both strong and good characteristics. An organisation needs leaders with both strong and good characteristics, people who will guide them to the future and show that they can be trusted.

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Motivational traits

To be an effective leader, your followers must have trust in you and they need to be sold on your vision. Korn-Ferry International, an executive search company, performed a survey on what organisations want from their leaders. The respondents said they wanted people who were both ethical and who convey a strong vision of the future.

In any organisation, a leader’s actions set the pace. This behaviour wins trust, loyalty, and ensures the organisation’s continued vitality. One of the ways to build trust is to display a good sense of character, composed of beliefs, values, skills, and traits:

Beliefs are what we hold dear to us and are rooted deeply within us. They could be assumptions or convictions that you hold true regarding people, concepts, or things. They could be the beliefs about life, death, religion, what is good, what is bad, what is human nature, etc.

Values are attitudes about the worth of people, concepts, or things. For example, you might value a good car, home, friendship, personal comfort, or relatives. Values are important as they influence a person’s behaviour to weigh the importance of alternatives. For example, you might value friends more than privacy, while others might be the opposite.

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Skills are the knowledge and abilities that a person gains throughout life. The ability to learn a new skill varies with each individual. Some skills come almost naturally, while others come only by complete devotion to study and practice.

Traits are distinguishing qualities or characteristics of a person, while character is the sum total of these traits. There are hundreds of personality traits, far too many to be discussed here. Instead, we will focus on a few that are crucial for a leader. The more of these you display as a leader, the more your followers will believe and trust in you.

Traits of a good leader

A good leader is:

Honest — Demonstrate sincerity, integrity, and candour in all your actions. Deceptive behaviour will not inspire trust.

Competent — Base your actions on reason and moral principles. Do not make decisions based on childlike emotional desires or feelings.

Forward-looking — Set goals and have a vision of the future. The vision must be owned throughout the organisation. Effective leaders envision what they want and how to get it. They habitually pick priorities stemming from their basic values.

Inspiring — Display confidence in all that you do. By showing endurance in mental, physical, and spiritual stamina, you will inspire others to reach for new heights. Take charge when necessary.

Intelligent — Read, study, and seek challenging assignments.

Fair-minded — Show fair treatment to all people. Prejudice is the enemy of justice. Display empathy by being sensitive to the feelings, values, interests, and well-being of others.

Broadminded — Seek out diversity. They avoid the “danger of a single story”.

Courageous — Have the perseverance to accomplish a goal, regardless of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Display a confident calmness when under stress.

Straightforward — Use sound judgement to make good decisions at the right time.

Imaginative — Make timely and appropriate changes in your thinking, plans, and methods. Show creativity by thinking of new and better goals, ideas, and solutions to problems. Be innovative!

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Attributes establish what leaders are, and every leader needs at least three of them:


Standard-bearers establish the ethical framework within an organisation. This demands a commitment to live and defend the climate and culture that you want to permeate your organisation. What you set as an example will soon become the rule, as, unlike knowledge, ethical behavior is learned more by observing than by listening. And in fast moving situations, examples become certainty. Being a standard bearer creates trust and openness in your employees, who in turn, fulfill your visions.

Developers help others learn through teaching, training, and coaching. This creates an exciting place to work and learn. Never miss an opportunity to teach or learn something new yourself. Coaching suggests someone who cares enough to get involved by encouraging and developing others who are less experienced. Employees who work for developers know that they can take risks, learn by making mistakes, and winning in the end.

Integrators orchestrate the many activities that take place throughout an organization by providing a view of the future and the ability to obtain it. Success can only be achieved when there is a unity of effort. Integrators have a sixth sense about where problems will occur and make their presence felt in  a vision-based framework.

An organisation consists of three components:

The structure gives the organisation its form and dictates the way it will interact.

The followers respond to the structure and the leaders.

The leaders determine the ultimate effectiveness of the organisation as the character and skills that they bring determine the way problems are solved and tasks are accomplished.

Lere Baale is a Director of Business School Netherlands and a Certified Strategy Consultant at Howes Consulting Group


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