“Characteristics of The Most Successful Leaders” – Sean Wolfington, Auto Success Magazine, March 2018
Vince Lombardi said, “Leadership lies in sacrifice, self-denial, love, fearlessness and humility. That is the difference between great and little men.” The most successful leaders possess unique characteristics that set them apart from the “little men.” They are larger than life in the eyes of those who follow them because of the enormous impact they make in their lives, both personally and professionally.
Great leaders enrich the lives of the people they serve, both personally and professionally, and that is why people follow them. They inspire and challenge everyone around them to do what they don’t want to do so they can get what they want to get. Ronald Reagan said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets people to do the greatest things.”
With this in mind, I’d like to share what I believe are the 30 characteristics of the most successful leaders that make them great.
1. It’s Personal
It’s very personal for great leaders. They recognize that the stakes are high because their success or failure not only affects people’s paychecks but impacts their entire lives — their marriage, family and relationships. They are not just trying to make money; they want to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve.
Passion is the fuel that drives great leaders and the people who follow them. Their passion is contagious. It is fed by a vision for a better future and a deep-seeded discontent with how things are versus how they could be. They are driven by the pain of what is, and inspired by the potential of what should be — and they love closing that gap.
3. Mission Driven
Great leaders are driven by a mission greater than themselves; they are driven by missions that make a positive impact in the lives of the people they serve — customers, employees, vendors, partners and the world at large. Great missions attract great people who want to be a part of something positive, not only to make money but to make a difference. If it’s only about a paycheck, you’ll attract people who will jump ship for a small raise or a better office. If it’s about something bigger and better, you’ll attract bigger and better people. Great leaders are mission driven and they help their team find and fulfill their personal missions, not just the company’s mission. By doing this, they create a happier, more productive culture and workplace.
4. Clear Vision
Great leaders have a crystal-clear vision of where they want to end up. Their vision inspires their team to rise above the unexpected challenges that occur along the way and encourages them to do what they need to do to get what they want. It’s so clear they can see it as if it already exists, because in their mind it does. You can’t achieve what you can’t conceive, so effective leaders see where they are, where they want to go and how they can get there. They have clearly defined goals and they attract and equip the right people to create and execute a plan to achieve them.
Great leaders recognize that the best way to lead others is to improve themselves. You are a billboard and everyone on your team is watching and imitating your example. When you get better, they get better. While they might not be able to control their environment, great leaders control how they react and respond to it. They bring the right attitude and approach to each person or situation rather than reacting to what others do. Great leaders are in control of the thoughts that guide their emotions, habits and behaviors, which inevitably determine their results and outcome.
6. Just Do it
Michael Jordan said, “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” Leaders are doers — action takers who get it done. They realize what they do is more influential than what they say or ask others to do. They don’t let fear stop them from trying and they don’t let obstacles impede their progress. They refuse to quit. They find a way to persevere. They make it happen.
7. Hard, Smart Work
Leaders work hard. Successful leaders find balance by working smarter, not just harder. They recognize that they need help, so they recruit and develop the right people, processes and tools so their business is less dependent on them and can grow beyond their individual reach. With all that said, however, they still work really hard.
8. Strong Character
The most successful leaders don’t get their sense of self-worth from what others think about them; they get it from the innate confidence that comes from doing the right thing in everything they do, which builds their strong character and resolve. High-integrity leaders realize it feels right to do the right thing, and that’s why high-character leaders are more secure, happier people than those who lack integrity. People follow them, not because they are their boss, but because of who they are and how they live their life.
9. Head Strong
You are what you think, so it is important to “mind your mind.” Henry Ford said, “If you think you can, you’re right. If you think you can’t, you’re right.” Belief is powerful, and it starts with how we think. Great leaders realize how you think affects how you feel and act, which determines your behavior, habits and outcomes. The challenge is that thoughts of doubt, fear and worry appear often in the minds of the greatest leaders — and without their permission. The most effective leaders pay a lot of attention to their “thought life” and they make proactive efforts to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. They focus on the things they can control rather than wasting time worrying about things that they cannot influence. This allows them to lead better in the here and now because you can’t seize a moment you’re not in. Having a positive outlook is how great leaders keep their heads above the clouds of fear and doubt that cause too many people to quit before they try. Having the right mindset also helps leaders turn adversity into their advantage by learning from their pain and doing better next time.
10. Addicted to Better
The best leaders are humble and hungry students who are addicted to making things better. They are deeply curious and they enjoy improving themselves and the organizations they lead. They have a passion for constant, never-ending improvement; that is why they are forever students who continue to get better over time. “Before you’re a leader, it is all about helping yourself grow. When you are a leader, it’s all about helping others grow. The bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others.”
11. Great Intentions
The best leaders have the best intentions, not just to make money, but to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve. These intentions fuel their passion and persistence in a deeper way because they know that if they win, others benefit. They are most proud of the impact they have on others — they feel good by doing good. These great intentions fuel their drive and give them a natural, infectious energy that they bring into everything they do.
Great leaders recognize that the only way to be trusted is to be trustworthy. They are honest; they say what they mean and mean what they say. They deliver what they promise and if they mess up, they are fast to apologize and do everything possible to make it right. Great leaders recognize that the truth has a power to it and that lying, even “little white lies,” aren’t little, because they are attached to something very big — a lie. Lies deteriorate trust while truth builds trust, so the best leaders engender trust by being honest.
13. Positive Habits
Human beings are creatures of habit and great leaders become creatures of great habits. They develop positive habits in how they think, speak, eat, act, live and work, and these positive habits, executed over time, deliver positive outcomes. Success isn’t achieved in one big step; it is a result of many small steps, done well, over and over again.
14. Focus on Solutions
“Followers think and talk about the problems. Leaders think and talk about the solutions,” said Brian Tracy. Leaders have more influence because they spend their time focusing on what they can influence, rather than wasting energy on things that are outside of their control. Colin Powell said, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers who can cut through argument, and debate to offer a solution everybody can understand.”
15. Forever Student
John F. Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Great leaders are forever students who are addicted to learning, growing and improving in all areas of their life. They are curious so they ask a lot of questions and learn from a lot of people and circumstances. The best students view every person they meet as a teacher and every circumstance as a classroom. As a result, they are always developing and improving themselves and those around them. They also recognize that the best way to learn is to teach, so helping others grow also helps them improve. People who are learning and growing are better at their jobs, happier, more confident and get better results.
16. Everyone Counts
Great leaders recognize that “everyone counts,” which means they believe that everyone has an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As a result, they are deeply committed to the personal and professional growth of each and every person they serve. They dedicate the time and energy to invest in their teams, helping them with their jobs, family, finances and personal problems. That is why their people will “run through a brick wall” for them, because they care.
Servant leaders keep it real. They don’t portray a perfect persona, but instead are strong enough to admit and express their weaknesses and to apologize when they mess up. This is another reason why employees and customers trust them because they are authentic. Their “realness” is refreshing, and it helps others feel comfortable being themselves.
18. Find A Balance
Vince Lombardi said, “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.” The most successful leaders work really, really hard. The truth is, most leaders are not very balanced because they work so hard, so their personal and family life often suffer. The most successful leaders work smarter to balance their professional and personal life, which inevitably makes them happier and more productive at work and every other area of their lives. This is holistic success. This is accomplished by attracting and developing the right people, plans, processes and tools so their business is less dependent on them or any one individual.
“A MANAGER demands/relies on authority, issues ultimatums, says “I”, uses people, takes credit, places blame, inspires fear, and says “go.”
A LEADER coaches/relies on goodwill, inspires buy-in, says “we”, develops people, gives credit, accepts blame, inspires enthusiasm, and says “let’s go.”
19. No Quit
Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Great leaders never, ever give up! They fail forward, they learn from their mistakes and they begin again, and again, and again. After we refuse to give up and instead chose to persevere through the storms of doubt, fear and failure, that’s when the miracles happen.
Great leaders are servant leaders who are aware that, ultimately, it is not all about them. They focus their energy on helping others and they get deep satisfaction from solving people’s problems and making everything better for their customers, employees, and everyone else they serve. Their selfless nature engenders trust amongst their team because they feel valued and appreciated. It also sets the example for their team to selflessly serve their customers and one another.
21. Care Deeply
People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. The best leaders care deeply about their people, personally and professionally, and their team knows it.
Great leaders fear less and try more, so they fail more, learn more, live more and succeed more. Too often, people quit before they try, because they are afraid to fail. “Just do it” is the mantra for the most successful leaders because they realize that the only guarantee for failure is not trying. Being fearless isn’t due to the absence of fears; it’s trying your best in spite of your fears. Fearless is getting back up and fighting for what and who you believe in, over and over again, regardless of what others think.
Great leaders recognize and appreciate their people and their work. They appreciate people for who they are and not just what they do for you. They spend less time trying to catch people doing something wrong and instead try to catch them doing something right — and then they appreciate and encourage them, often in public, to promote positive and productive behavior.
24. No Ego
Great leaders realize it’s not about “me,” it’s about “we.” Instead of growing a big head, great leaders focus on helping their people grow. They bring the best out of people rather than telling everyone that they are the best. They accomplish more because they don’t waste time talking about everything they have accomplished.
25. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Great leaders don’t major in minor things, and they don’t sweat the small stuff. They focus on making big problems small rather than turning small problems into big ones. They know when to direct and when to correct, but they do it when it matters most and not on the “small stuff.
26. See the Best in Others
Great leaders bring out the best in people because they see the best in them. They see their potential and inspire and educate them to use their talents to achieve it. While they appreciate their people, they also challenge them to fulfill their potential by using their talents to become the best version of themselves, which is often better than they ever thought they could become.
Great leaders know they don’t have all the answers, so they are eager to learn from others. They ask the right people the right questions, and they listen well. They are humble and hungry students who constantly learn from others and are always trying to improve. They don’t waste time seeking credit but instead give it to others. They are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and constantly strive to improve themselves and those around them. They are generous with their power and praise, include others in the decision-making process and give credit and praise to their team.
28. Great Communicators
Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and decision-making ability. They are clear communicators who inspire, challenge, direct, encourage, convince and compel people to action. While the best leaders have these skills, they are also great listeners. They are genuinely interested in what others think and are always seeking to learn and grow, so they listen intently so they can apply it to their lives. As a result, they make better decisions and communicate better
The only way to improve our life and others’ is to take responsibility for how we think and act. Great leaders admit when they are wrong and they fix problems fast whether they created them or not. “A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them,” said John Maxwell. The turning point for every leader is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes and actions because then and only then can we change them.
Great leaders don’t accept division amongst their people. They seek to heal broken relationships because they recognize the importance of maintaining a positive chemistry amongst their people. They deal with issues head on and encourage their teams to take responsibility, to apologize and forgive so they can resolve and move forward together. As a result, they turn disagreements into opportunities to improve communications that often creates stronger bonds than if an issue never occurred.
Before you’re a leader, it is all about helping yourself grow. When you are a leader, it’s all about helping others grow. The bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others. Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”
The greatest leaders know their purpose and they help others achieve theirs. They are not just interested in success at work; they seek success in life. They are not solely interested in making a living; they are driven to make a difference in the lives of others. As a result, they build healthier cultures and more- productive businesses that generate a bigger bottom line and a happier workplace for themselves and the people they work with.
I hope that these insights help you improve the impact you have in the lives you lead.