Growing Strong Leaders: 15 Traits that Mark an Effective Leader

We are often told that management and leadership are two different things—that the ability to manage a business, department, project, or team doesn’t necessarily imply skill as a leader.

While in theory leadership is one aspect of management, in practice this is not always the case.

Q: What exactly constitutes the difference between what many today refer to as management and true leadership?

A: In short, management tends to involve more of what is known as the hard skills, while leadership adds more of the all-important soft skills to the management equation.

Hard and Soft Management Skills

To define our terms, hard skills are the concrete abilities that can be precisely and objectively measured, such as the ability to type, use computer software, or read a financial statement. Soft skills are the more subjective, less tangible, and more abstract skills that add depth and breadth to the manager’s toolkit, such as flexibility, mental agility, communication, and a strong work ethic.

There is unquestionably some overlap between the two skill types, and business analysts don’t always agree on which skills fall into which category. In fact, some skills may actually include components that fit both categories. A few examples might be time management and organization, which both require specific tangible techniques (hard skills) coupled with a mindset and thought process (soft skills) that can effectively utilize the techniques to reach the desired goal.

Even mediocre managers possess certain soft skills. However, the overriding goal in achieving greater development as a leader involves increasing the quantity and degree of soft skills and effectively integrating them together with the hard skills that form the basis of management ability into the foundational framework of the management model.

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Management Basics

The typical business management course teaches that management consists of the following four components: planning, organizing, leading, and controlling, which basically tells us that leadership skills can and should comprise one dimension of management. Yet, the degree to which this is actually true in a given manager’s experience will obviously vary.

What Makes a Manager a Leader?

A number of positive traits are shared by strong leaders in any field—traits that, when not already present, can fortunately be developed. Just to be clear, effective business leadership requires that the basic hard skills necessary for management also be acquired, making business studies crucial. Yet, to rise above the level of mere “management” and take one’s place among the world’s most effective business leaders requires more.

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15 Traits that Mark an Effective Leader

The following are 15 key traits that are common among successful, effective business leaders:

1. Integrity: True leaders’ business dealings and relational practices are above board and not motivated by greed or undue personal interest.

2. Vision: Strong leaders set energetic long-term goals, thinking far beyond the constraints of present reality.

3. Communication: Noteworthy leaders engage in authentic two-way communication, listening as intently as they speak.

4. Empathy: Respected leaders put themselves in the other person’s place to build effective relationships and inspire maximum engagement from superiors, subordinates, colleagues, and clients.

5. Decisiveness: Conscientious leaders have mastered the fine art of effective decision-making.

6. Self-Discipline: Real leaders control their own impulses and take whatever action is necessary to get the job done.

7. Persuasiveness: Authentic leaders influence others through persuasion rather than through authoritarianism.

8. Flexibility: Promising leaders have the ability to re-strategize when they face the unexpected.

9. Resilience: Powerful leaders are able to bounce back when setbacks occur.

10. Big-Picture Thinking: Successful leaders take a bird’s eye view of a situation to determine its overall impact on the organization.

11. Failure-Tolerance: Leaders worthy of the name recognize that failure is a normal component of the innovation process that always provides a valuable learning experience that can lead to future success.

12. Proactivity: Able leaders know when to think and when to act. Instead of waiting for something to happen, they make things happen.

13. Optimism: Model leaders engage in possibility thinking, knowing that a fatalistic outlook will never bring success.

14. Problem-Solving: Impressive leaders take the initiative to solve problems, rather than procrastinating and allowing them to get worse.

15. Self-Confidence: Visionary leaders trust their own ability to live up to the daily challenges of their job.

Capable leaders develop these and other leadership skills in many ways—some through personal growth, academic study, or professional experience, and others through leadership coaching, individual mentorship, or workplace development.


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Robert Cordray is a freelance writer with over 20 years of business experience
He does the occasional business consult to help increase employee morale
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L2L Contributing Author