14 Characteristics of an Extraordinary Leader
Anyone can lead, but not everyone can lead well. Extraordinary leaders emanate character and convey passion. Their ethics are uncompromising, and they serve wholeheartedly. They are balanced in both confidence and compassion while maintaining composure at all times.
It requires a special kind of mental fortitude and resiliency to lead a nation, organization, or even a family, successfully. A great leader knows how to get the most out of very little. His presence and charisma are memorable, (but never sleazy). And above all else, he leads by example; earning the trust of colleagues and subordinates.
Unfortunately, not all leaders are created equal.
Gallant leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela have become but a distant memory.
Is extraordinary leadership dead?
“A leader must be strong but likewise have endurance, not only physically but mentally.” — Jocko Willink
Below, are 14 leadership qualities, that when combined, model an extraordinary leader.
If we align ourselves with these characteristics, we will undoubtedly impact lives. It will require a tremendous amount of discipline (and self-awareness), but at the end of each day, we’ll be playing our part in making the world a much better place.
Best-selling author, Michael Hyatt explains how authentic leaders influence and impact. They show initiative and have insight. Most importantly, they maintain integrity — supported by high values.
Authenticity goes beyond being genuine or real. Authentic leaders admit when they don’t know something. A wise leader is intelligent enough to surround himself with capable people that have the answers when he doesn’t.
Authentic leaders also don’t mind if others disagree with them. In fact, they pay close attention to these situations. It’s called “balanced processing.” Most of us struggle with this trait, but leaders are wired differently. They never dismiss others and their opposing points of view on a given topic.
Confidence is undoubtedly the foundation of strong leadership, but it’s a quality that is often abused.
“With realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world.” — Dalai Lama
Retired US Navy Seal Commander, Jocko Willink says: “A leader must be confident, but never cocky.” Jocko goes onto explain how overconfidence causes complacency, which ultimately sets the team up for failure.
There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, which brings us to #3: humility.
Humility is often associated with weakness. A characteristic of a person that’s lacking in strength. A “pushover.”
The dictionary defines humility as “having a modest opinion of one’s own importance.” The best leaders know when to stand out (and step back).
American author, Ken Blanchard says: “People with humility do not think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.”
There’s a quote by the Chinese Philosopher, Lao Tzu that says; “The great leader speaks little. He never speaks carelessly. He works without self-interest and leaves no trace. When all is finished, the people say ‘We did it ourselves.’”
Exceptional leaders push their ego aside and allow others to shine once in a while.
Empathy is considered to be the “building block for morality.” A leader who lacks empathy will struggle to build strong relationships with his team, organization, or spouse. It’s the key to healthy communication.
Simon Sinek, the best-selling author of Leaders Eat Last, says: “Exceptional leaders and organizations prioritize the well-being of their people, and in return, their people give everything they’ve got to protect and advance the well-being of one another and the organization.”
He goes on to say:
“In the military, we give medals to people who sacrifice so others may gain … In business, we give bonuses to people who gained when others sacrificed.”
It’s been said that empathy begins by giving others the benefit of the doubt. Leaders who take the time to understand the needs of their team can provide them with the support they require to push ahead, to deal with the challenges that could be holding them back from achieving their goals.
True leaders are mindful and compassionate, which brings us to #5 …
A compassionate leader cares about the hardships of others. He has a strong desire to lift people up when they’ve fallen down.
A compassionate leader is attentive and sympathetic; responding to sensitive situations with kindness and respect.
The Dalai Lama expresses a distinction between compassion and empathy by saying:
“Empathy is a desire to know the other person. Compassion is to act on that knowledge with positive intent.”
In a world where self-serving, narcissistic, and power-driven leaders are becoming more popular than ever, we can choose to stand out by being the polar opposite.
Compassionate leaders may not be the most popular, but they’re the most effective.
An extraordinary leader is highly versatile. He’s not only mentally strong but physically. That doesn’t mean he has to be able to bench press 315 pounds, but a respectable leader needs to be able to display discipline in all areas of his life.
67-year-old, Richard Branson is a great example of a fit leader. The self-made billionaire begins his morning at 5:00 a.m. with some form of exercise — followed by a healthy breakfast and family time.
“If you win the morning, you win the day.” — Tim Ferriss
Barack Obama is another great example of a leader that puts his health first. He exercises daily by playing basketball, strength training, and doing pushups.
A capable leader understands that by starting the day with exercise and optimal nutrition, he’ll be mentally (and physically) available for his team for the rest of the day.
We spend a majority of our lives at work, so it should be fun. This is another area in which Richard Branson shines. He says: “leaders take things far too seriously.”
There is something refreshing about a leader who’s confident enough to show his sense of humor. It humanizes him; creating an environment for greater productivity.
American anthropologist, Edward Hall said:
“If you can learn the humor of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else.”
A leader’s witty personality matters. It keeps egos in check, spirits high, and feet on the ground.
The best leaders exemplify loyalty. It’s the glue that hold’s relationships together. Whether it’s the world of sports, politics, or business, a strong leader values and supports every one of his teammates. He cultivates an honest and positive working environment — judiciously responding to conflicts between others.
An extraordinary leader fosters loyalty amongst his team by displaying a loyal attitude himself, and he never (ever) defames or gossips.
He always remains classy. (Think, The Most Interesting Man in the World).
A great example of focus in leadership is Steve Jobs. When he returned to Apple in 1997, he was welcomed by a chaotic sea of products. After deep, cogitative consideration, Jobs decided to narrow down the company’s products to just four: a desktop computer and laptop for two markets.
Jobs was masterful in filtering out what he considered to be irrelevancies.
“A leader must be attentive with details but not obsessed with them.” — Jocko Willink
Effective leaders are also strategists. They’re able to focus on tasks and navigate their team to complete objectives smoothly and efficiently. But Willink warns: “they [leaders] cannot get sucked into the details and lose track of the bigger picture.”
An effective leader must continue to be focused — providing an accurate (and realistic) vision of the future they’re leading people towards.
“Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism is power.” — William James
A good leader cultivates positive relationships. He strategically helps people find purpose in what they do, and sparks hope.
A positive leader doesn’t play on people’s fear or influence anger. Instead, he expands his people’s capacity for excellence by maintaining optimism.
Positivity might be one of the most undervalued qualities of a leader, and could, therefore, be one of the characteristics that set you apart from other leaders.
Accepting responsibility is an essential component of leadership. Strong leaders are accountable for both their own actions and the actions of their team. They never point the finger or make excuses.
“The leader must own everything in his or her world.” — Jocko Willink, Author of Extreme Ownership
Acclaimed mentor and author, Michael Hyatt says: “Until you take responsibility, you are a victim. And being a victim is the exact opposite of being a leader.”
The bottom line is that an organization cannot thrive and grow until its leaders are willing to take responsibility. This kind of ecosystem opens up a world of possibilities.
When a leader speaks, it’s vital for their message to be clear. If the narrative surrounding his or her speech is confusing, it leads to doubt, hesitation, and fear.
Much of today’s leadership seems to be lacking in clarity.
There’s no clarity without vision. These two go hand-in-hand. And the best way to get clear on your vision is by asking the right questions.
A 2017 Harvard Business Review article delves into the topic of “strategic thinking,” and how it’s “less about complexity and more about practical focus.”
An extraordinary leader asks the questions; what, why, and how? He examines, contemplates, and takes action. He provides a realistic solution, supported by a clear plan.
14th-century English author, William Langland is said to have coined the term: “patience is a virtue.”
The greatest leaders in history were highly-skilled in this nearly obsolete characteristic.
Patience shows respect, inspires positivity, and increases productivity. It’s considered to be a superpower among true leaders, including the 18th-century English politician, George Savile who wrote: “a man who is master of patience is master of everything else.”
In today’s business and political landscapes, it’s common for a leader to react to a situation swiftly and without presence of mind, but these are the moments when poise is required most.
“The strong manly ones in life are those who understand the meaning of the word patience.” — Tokugawa Ieyasu
We’ve now arrived at the final (and possibly the most pivotal) trait of an extraordinary leader; self-awareness.
An extraordinary leader is emotionally intelligent. He is fully conscious of his weaknesses and listens to his inner voice.
When a leader is aware of the fact that he doesn’t “know everything,” and that he’s as much of a student as a teacher, he’s much more effective as a leader.
A self-aware leader listens to others because he has a keen understanding of the importance of communication. He’s attentive to the attitude he’s projecting, while also smart (and humble) enough to adjust it when necessary.
“Nothing else can happen if we are blind to ourselves and blind to others.” — Manley Hopkinson
The purpose for writing this article was to gain a clear perspective as to what it takes to be a great leader. I want to lead better, myself. And I’m hoping you take something away from this topic as well. All-too-often we allow ego (or fear) to get the best of us; causing us to hinder our intellectual growth.
I’m still not entirely convinced that strong leadership traits are inherited or developed (or a bit of both), but regardless, a man will need to lead in some phase of his life. It’s merely a question of; how well will he lead?
As a leader, will you divide, or will you unite? Will you inspire or discourage? Will you display courage, or will you coward at the sign of trouble?
With some grit, wit, and perseverance, you can be the man that people turn to for empowerment and guidance.
// Image courtesy of HBO