Five Essential Qualities of Everyday Leadership

Five Essential qualities of leadership

By Angela Noel

October 16, 2107

Some bosses inspire fear, others devotion. The call to leadership asks for the best in a person, but does not always get it. Bosses make our lives better or worse with the simplest of inconsequential acts. A “good job” can mean the world. A well-placed critique can change a career. But a thoughtless comment will damage any relationship, never more so than when one person has the ability to terminate the other’s livelihood. Worse, a pattern of ego-driven blindness can turn a leader into an employee’s personal Satan.

There are clearly many wrong ways to lead. But countless books on the how-to’s or success stories of leadership try to teach the right way. The sheer abundance of these volumes prove there really is no one “right way.” No definitive roadmap exists for an individual to follow in order to become an influential, respected, and beloved leader.

Even definitions of what equates to a “great” leader differ. Some, like Jeff Bezos build towering empires. Others, like Nelson Mandela, lead nations. Still others lead in small, everyday ways, impacting lives without ever realizing the full extent of their influence.

It’s this last group, more than any of the Buffets, Churchills, or Sandbergs out there, who have taught me the most about qualities of leadership. Lucky for me, I’ve had many of these everyday-greats enter my life.

They share few things in common at first glance. Extroverts and introverts. Men and women. Thinkers and strategists. Technical wizards and creative geniuses. Kind souls and analysts. But on closer inspection, though their approaches were unique, each leader found a way to connect to the universal. They see the world through the eyes of service, not ego. These leaders aspire towards greatness, not to aggrandize themselves, but to inspire and motivate others.

They may not loom large in the world as a whole, but in my life, they are giants. From their example, five core traits emerge.

The five essential qualities of leadership
You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be authentic.

1. Care

It might seem obvious but it’s not. Not all bosses see the people who report to them as actual human beings. Instead, they treat their direct reports like drones, valuable only in what he or she can contribute to the hive or to the leader’s prestige or success. But, the great ones see the person, not just their work. I’ve had many excellent bosses who demonstrated the qualities/actions in this article in Inc., “10 Things Great Bosses Do to Show They Care About Their Employees.

For example, one of my bosses knew of my interest in writing and sent an email on my behalf to another department, praising me and encouraging them to use my writing skills. This would have meant time away from my core role, but she knew both that the company could benefit, and that I wanted to use more of my writing in my day-to-day work. She served as the matchmaker between my goals, skills, and passions, with other organizational opportunities.

Another leader, knowing I’d been invited to speak to a team about goal setting, offered to be my audience as I practiced my presentation. He offered advice and even came to the session to support me as I delivered my talk.

Leaders go beyond the day-to-day; they invest in relationships.

2. Trust

Establishing mutual trust doesn’t happen right away, nor should it. An excellent book I’ve mentioned before, The Art of Possibility, offers an excellent idea. It introduces the practice of “Giving an A” as part of enhancing relationships both at home and at work. “When you give an A,” say authors Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, “you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves.” A great boss knows how to establish trust through a foundation of respect.

Trusting me to do my work and do it well means the world to me and many other employees. In fact, demonstrating trust in the team is essential to being trusted. One boss I had made comments to me about another member of the team. This person questioned whether my teammate was truly effective or committed. Immediately, my trust in this leader dipped.

In contrast, when a new boss came on board, this individual took the time to understand my teammate’s schedule and work output (which was both high quality and quantity). Instead of questioning the employee’s commitment this boss gave the employee an A. From this leader, I heard only affirmations about the individual’s contribution.

Taking the time to respect others and build trust results in better relationships and ultimately, better outcomes for all.

3. Honesty

In an article in CEO Magazine, the author cites a survey of 100,000 people. Eighty-nine percent of respondents felt that honesty was the most important quality a leader can possess. Unfortunately, many leaders believe they are honest but aren’t perceived that way. The disconnect lies in the difference between words and actions. A boss can say, “I trust you,” but then hovers over his or her team members, second-guesses decisions, or undermines the credibility of employees in front of others.

Honesty- hand over heart
Honesty and behavior integrity mean telling it like it is and aligning words and actions.

Behavioral integrity, or alignment between what we say and what we do, is critical in any successful relationship. It is, as the author of “Honesty: The Single Most Important Leadership Value,” states the “gateway for trust and inspiration.”

The book Leadership and Self-Deception explores the importance and almost epidemic problem of leaders who act in ways contrary to their expressed values. These can be little things, like telling employees how important work/life balance is, but still sending emails and text messages to employees at all hours. Or much bigger things, like taking credit for an employee’s idea. One of the best ways to combat self-deception and encourage openness and honesty, is for a boss to acknowledge his or her mistakes or opportunities for improvement.

One of my bosses, during the annual review season, acknowledged the areas she had been working on, and asked for feedback from the team on some of her core goals. She told us how she had engaged in her own development opportunities and brought back to us any of the learning she gained from her efforts that seemed relevant to us all. By acknowledging and encouraging her own growth mindset, she enabled the rest of the team to see learning, even failing, as a valuable asset, rather than a liability.

When whole organizations act counter to their values and the culture becomes toxic, true leaders have a far more difficult time. But, it’s during these times that leadership is paramount. It was during this type of experience when one boss gave me excellent advice about honesty. He said, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.” Our organization had been going through massive change, and trusting anyone during that time proved complicated. Understanding that people show who they are, not only in their words, but in their actions too, was his way of helping me navigate through the challenge. He, a C-level executive, shielded me from much of the turmoil without hiding from me how dysfunctional things had become.

4. Individualization

Everyone on a team will need something different from a leader. Personally, I need a sounding board. I need to be able to talk through my ideas out loud. I don’t need my problems to be solved for me, but I need a forum for discussion. Other people need to be left entirely alone. They need silence and space. A great leader finds the secret sauce to unlocking the potential in each individual. He or she won’t make assumptions, but will ask a lot of questions.

As in this article from Forbes, individualizing to the needs of every employee requires a host of different strategies. Maybe flexible work arrangements are best for one person, but time to pursue a passion project is better for another. Within boundaries, and where trust and respect already exist, leaders with the ability to individualize retain more quality employees and increase productivity.

Case in point, one of my teammates loved volunteering, another wanted to put his children on the bus in the morning, and I, of course, had my writing. For each of us, our boss’ challenge was to establish boundaries on work expectations, but to genuinely and enthusiastically seek a way to say yes to our goals. And she did, without exception.

5. Expectation of Greatness

Did you know that the origin of the word parenting comes from Latin and means “to bring forth?” I didn’t, until I read Grit by Angela Duckworth. I recoil at the idea that a boss is like a parent, but in that respect, the parallels are obvious. Both a leader and a parent must call forth the best in those of us who, by nature or by choice, depend on their wisdom.

Like the successful parents Duckworth talks about in her book, a great leader will demand excellence and offer the unflagging support needed to achieve it. He or she will know our capabilities and set targets just beyond where they know we’re at today. Then, he or she will get out of the way. Like that moment when you’re learning to ride a bike and whomever is teaching you just knows it’s time to let go–when your own momentum is enough to carry you forward–that’s when a leader sets you free.

I’ve had my bike let go a little too early, then crashed and burned. Other leaders have held on too long, holding me back when all I wanted to do was ride. The sweet spot is in between. One of my bosses worked hard at finding this balance. Her own interest in a topic made it hard for her to bow out. But, because I knew this about her, and knew if I asked, she’d let go, that’s exactly what I did. Together, we decided it was time for her to step out, and for me to lead. She demanded excellence from me. I was happy to oblige.

The Result of Everyday Greatness

Because of the incredible trust, honesty, expectations, and genuine care a particularly exceptional leader offered me, when I told her I was approached with an opportunity from another organization, she hugged me. She expressed how proud she was of me, told me how sad she’d be if I left, but assured me I’d always have her support. I heard once that employees don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses. In my case, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I loved that company. I love my boss, my team, and my job. But, contribution is much larger than a single role in a single organization. It’s a lifetime’s worth of effort married to a universe of possibility. Sometimes we have to leap.

A great boss looks forward to this leap for his or her employees. Yes, there’s sadness, and even more work because filling a gap left by a trusted employee means effort and time. But these everyday-excellent leaders regulate their egos with their hearts. Therefore, success of his or her team members, no matter what form it takes, is a point of sincere pride–even joy.

Leaders who inspire devotion are those who see leadership not as a job, but as a calling. People are their business, first and foremost. Go find these leaders to work for. And go be one yourself if it’s in you. You’ll never regret it.

Go forth. Be you. Be awesome, every day.

Your turn: What qualities have you appreciated in your leaders? What did he or she do to encourage you to reach your potential?

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Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

34 thoughts on “Five Essential Qualities of Everyday Leadership”

  1. Awesome descriptions of the 5 qualities, and indeed the 5 common qualities of the best of them. I used to teach that leaders are made while no one is watching, meaning that one common trait I found among the best leaders that I ever observed (and I’ll even go out on a limb and include myself) (humbly, of course) was that they were all more concerned with their respective teams than with how somebody else was concerned of them.

    1. That’s such a powerful statement. Really it’s about character. What any of us do when no one is watching is the true test of what our values are and what we believe. Then, when people are watching, we don’t have to focus on appearances. I love this quote: “If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams…” Roald Dahl
      For leaders like you–I’ve no doubt others can feel the warmth of your goodness. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Like you said, there are a hundred different lists of top leadership qualities, but the ones you listed really resonate with me. Looking back, it’s the leaders who truly showed that they cared about my success and growth as a human being and not just their employee are the ones I cherish and remember. I’ve been fortunate to have had more leaders that demonstrated these qualities than not!

    1. Thank you for reading! I think sometimes we “know” leaders should be role models, but sometimes they don’t really understand just how much their actions matter. It is a huge responsibility.

  3. Excellent! These are qualities needed in all relationships: as a parent, a leader of a volunteer organization, a teacher, coach, a member of the church council. The list goes on. Perhaps it is in true friendships that we see these qualities most sincerely. Well done, Angela Noel.

    1. Thank you! I think you make an excellent point, every relationship deserves the benefit of these core qualities. We don’t have to have “power” in the corporate or political sense, to have an impact on others. Thank you for your insight–so valuable.

  4. These are all so important, and a true leader really is a multi-faceted individual. I think for me, the biggest element is empathy- I want to know that the person/people leading me are able to understand what I might be going through and have some empathy for me. Life and work can be tough, and it makes a world of difference knowing that the person leading you truly does care for you!

  5. I think my current boss is really good. She is firm but fair, approachable and appreciative. All important qualities in a good boss.

  6. Very interesting post, Angela. Being a good leader or boss is not easy and equally not easy to come by. I’ve had terrible bosses and each & every one has not been authentic. The handful of good bosses that I’ve had have been genuine, caring & have treated me on the same level as them. I’ve felt their trust from them & that’s a pretty amazing thing. Oh and of course a good boss ALWAYS gets the first round in 🍻

    1. Yes! You know, a boss knowing when to treat his or her team is one of the lost arts. I wish authenticity in our leaders was easier to come by. It seems like such a simple thing. But being authentic means accepting vulnerability. I think a lot of bosses fear loss of control if they show weakness. Maybe in some environments that’s true. Which is a shame. But, in a well-functioning culture, learning, vulnerability, and growth should be encouraged in everyone. Including, and especially for those higher up on the food chain. I’m glad you’ve had a handful of good ones–though I wish you had more good than bad. You deserve the best.

    1. Yep. I agree. Though many things contribute to an unhappy workplace, the tone set at the top makes a huge difference. I hope you have had more good management than bad!

  7. Interesting post! I’m looking to raise a couple of leaders, and you hit the nail on the head regarding the qualities a leader shows. I also agree, that empathy is high on the list as well! 🙂 Thanks for such a thought-provoking post! 🙂

    1. I am sure you will raise leaders! I think we lead from any chair (that’s an orchestra metaphor I believe). Though I don’t have direct reports-at least at the moment-I still see the importance of leading in many ways in my life. I’m glad parents like you see the importance of these qualities. It makes a difference to us all.

  8. This is so important! Although you can teach leadership skills, I think that many times (maybe most times), leaders are born not made, simply because so much of it is about personality. For instance, I’ve encountered many narcissistic and/or insecure leaders in the educational arena. They might attend leadership training, etc., but the bottom line is that their own personality gets in the way. I also LOVE what you wrote about service. That is the crux of it, for me. If the leader is more concerned with nurturing future leaders and serving constituents, you know s/he is the real deal.

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment! I do think many people in power seek the spotlight instead of see leadership as a sacred responsibility. I know it’s a little goofy, but Harry Potter is a great example. The kid never wanted to be a symbol or a leader, but he obeyed the calling with an unflagging commitment to others. I was once a leader more interested in the status of leadership instead of the responsibility. But maturity and time taught me much. Thank you so much, again, for your thoughts.

  9. A delightfully thorough breakdown of these qualities. I love your personal knowledge with each element, further emphasizing their place in this, the writer’s life. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Jean! I’ve been having some excellent conversations with others about the qualities they most admire. I love it when a post is a conversation starter so others can share their personal experiences too!

  10. Reading this I am reminded of one my favourite historical characters and I think one of the great leaders ever:Ernest Shackleton. The story of the Endurance expedition blows me a way every time I read it. On the one hand it was a failure because he lost the ship and did not achieve his goal of crossing the Antarctic but on the other hand he led his men across ice sheets, oceans and uncharted mountain ranges through 18 months of hard ship and got everyone out safely. And that was always his main aim. He also seems more present to me than other historical charcters (or even people currently alive!) and I think it is because he possessed this qualities you list here!Thanks for making me think of him!

    1. I’m so glad you mentioned Shackleton. I don’t know a lot about him, but have read about the great devotion of his men and his devotion to them. These things matter. Thank you for your comment! I appreciate the reminder, and the great example of a true leader.

      1. Definitely worth reading about if you get a chance…he comes across as very real…to me anyway. I don’t think its too much to say that I am more than a bit in love with him 🙂 🙂

  11. Wow! What a well thought out piece, Angela. You make so many great points. And, you’re right – you could use these exact points for parenting, or even relationships in general. Care, trust, and honesty are especially important. A strong relationship can not be built without them. I also loved your insight on “individualism”. I think this is one point that not some people overlook, or maybe they don’t even realize this exists. I read the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, and there were so many ‘wake-up’ moments as I combed through every word of that book. For example, many workplaces are built to accommodate the ‘team’ model: open spaces where everyone can see each other, hear each other, and work together; team projects where everyone bounces ideas and spends a lot of time together; and there is very little time allowed for quiet, individual work. You had mentioned introverts and extroverts above, and these work places modeled after the ‘team’ approach just don’t work for many introverts. I loved that you mention that a leader will take these individual differences into consideration. You are right! This is the only way that everyone can be their best. I hope you are in a leadership position, Angela, or will be in one soon. You should be! Hope everything goes smoothly tomorrow! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Erin! “Quiet” is on my list of books I want to read. As someone who leans towards extroversion I can easily forget that many of us need space in a conversation–silent space to formulate thoughts. One of the questions my new boss asked me was if I could handle independent work vs “team” efforts. Lucky for me, novels are written in relative isolation–so I was truthfully able to say I felt comfortable in both environments. But, not everyone does. And, as you say, the importance of a leader knowing how to individualize to each member of his or her team can’t be underestimated if they want each person to realize his or her potential.
      Thank you for thinking I should lead. I used to think leading others was all I ever wanted to do. I have since learned that though I would welcome formally leading a team again, I do feel like a leader every day I have the opportunity to support another human in the work that matters most to them. I used to have a very narrow definition of leading, but I’m glad my brain made the shift to seeing leadership as a way of being, not a formal position. (But it means a lot that you think I’d be good at it.)

  12. Hi Angela,

    I must say that a person can inspire only if he is there when others need him. Care helps to build trust, but trust only stays if there is honesty. Individualization is always helpful in many ways. and greatness we all look for.

    Thanks 🙂

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