The 7 Characteristics That Set Great Leaders Apart

No one is perfect, and that goes for our leaders too — even though we may wish differently for them.

We want them to be near perfect in their ability to inspire us to do great work, accomplish important things for the organization, and lead us with humanity and unquestionable character.

Great leaders spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve their organizations and the people within them. Deb Cheslow, author of Remarkable Courage, has spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a great leader, and the characteristics below are adapted from her writings.

  1. Do the right things, even when no one is watching. Have integrity and character to complement your ability to get things done. It’s easy to do the right thing when you have an audience, but it takes courage and strength of character to do the right thing when you’re alone. Stay true to your values even when everyone around you is floundering, or when popular opinion goes against what you know in your heart to be right.
  2. Take personal responsibility. Follow rules, report facts accurately, treat people fairly, and don’t lie, cheat, or steal to advance your agenda. Hold yourself accountable for your actions and decisions and for the actions of the people under your authority. Don’t make excuses; take the blame when things go wrong and make sure those who do the work get the credit when things go right. Attack root causes of problems and never blame others.
  3. Do whatever it takes, but minimize collateral damage. Achieve outcomes without leaving your followers exhausted, damaged, or demoralized. Achieve your goals within moral and ethical boundaries. Don’t be a leader who falls prey to poor decision making or compromises their character and integrity for what might feel good in the moment.
  4. Develop followers. Build the skills and talents of others and make employees partners in the process of accomplishing goals. Empower your staff to continually improve, share your knowledge and experience generously, and press your team to achieve more, realizing that everyone will be better off the more frequently employees do great work and achieve great success.
  5. Never go it alone. Absorb the input and counsel of numerous advisors, both from similar and opposing perspectives, then devise solutions based upon a well-rounded view of the problem. Understand that it is naïve to believe you’ve considered every possible angle of an issue without seeking outside counsel from a varied and extended network.
  6. Leave people and things better than you found them. Always make a positive difference that benefits everyone. Even when you inherit a situation that’s less than ideal, provide inspiration for rebuilding bigger and better than before.
  7. Be courageous. Defy logic and conventional wisdom and blaze new trails. Don’t dwell on why something can’t be done, but only consider how it might be accomplished. Make a decision, announce it, and then you and your team should set about making it a reality.

What are the leadership traits you value most and believe are essential in a great leader?

Article Continues Below

This was originally published on the OC Tanner blog.

About the Author

A highly accomplished international speaker, strategist, and author on performance improvement; Michelle is a respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, employee engagement and talent. She’s published and presented more than 1,100 articles and lectures and is a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and governments.

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished industry leader who has worked in every facet of recognition and incentives, both domestically and internationally.

She has appeared on Fox Television and the BBC, and been featured in magazines like Fortune, Business Week, Inc., and Return on Performance; as well as national radio programs, and contributions to the books “Bull Market” by Seth Godin, “Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk,” and “Social Media Isn’t Social.”

Michelle is President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association and Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University. She’s Vice President, Research for the Business Marketing Association and serves on the Boards of the Incentive Federation and the Incentive & Engagement Solutions Council. She was also the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine.




  • Lourdes Molina

    It is a very good article. Easy to say, very difficult to follow, overall in situations were everything go wrong because our Ego, doesn’t let us visualize clearly the situation. It is too painful and takes a long time to realize the real snapshot with the success and fails as it is. Then you have to grow up as leader and maybe then, you can be more skillful in the 7 characteristics of a great leader.

    • Michelle Smith

      Most goals worthy of achieving are a challenge. These characteristics are “easy to say, very difficult to follow,” as you say, but we must keep holding leaders accountable to higher standards.

      • Brian Garrett

        I agree completely, but “holding leaders accountable to higher standards” is “easy to say, very difficult to follow” also. Most topics that need to be broached with leaders are very delicate in the minds of said leaders.
        Most policies and procedures have been in place for many years and have not been updated as technology, number of employees and informational references change and increase.
        If you have a leader that refuses to stay educated on changes in the ways that people do business, shop, react to advertising mediums or employees differing learning styles, you will have a very difficult time holding them accountable or sometimes even listening.
        As Lourdes said, “Ego”. Why should a leader hold themselves accountable to a higher standard, they are already the leader.
        I would like to think that anyone in a leadership position would hold themselves to a higher standard, but I am saddened by the actual ratio I find every day of those that do vs those that do not.

        • Michelle Smith

          Brian, you’ll get no arguement from me that we still have a long way to go to achieve all these leadership ideals – for all the insightful reasons you mentioned. However, I believe we must continue to hold up the mirror to leaders (as much as we reasonably can) or we condemn ourselves to the current situation. Some leaders will never ‘get it,’ but I have seen many who have come through the Recession with the realization that how and what they did in the past isn’t effective any longer. They don’t know what the new path should look like, so they’ve been more open-minded to suggestions. It may be baby steps, but they are in the right direction, and we should continue to encourage that progress.

  • Katye

    One of the traits I find most valuable is a leader who is willing to set the example for their staff. Those who don’t take advantage of the extra freedom their position provides by holding themselves to a different standard than they hold their employees. If you expect your team to be on time, be on time too. If you expect your team to take only a one hour lunch, do the same. If you expect them to jump in when volume is high in a certain area, be willing to help too. Set the example so you don’t lose the respect of your team. Many leaders think when they take advantage of their position it isn’t noticed, but it is, and it has an impact on how hard your team is willing to work.

    • Michelle Smith

      Very well said, Katye!

    • Guest#1

      A good leader will point out the good he/she has done, not recognizing who actually did the work a Great leader is one who not only recognize staff for the good work but exclude themselves from the recognition, let me tell you my boss is all about taking the credit when things go exteremly well but as soon as things go not so great this person is on the fast tract to point the finger to others and says I will look into it and get back to you….

      • Michelle Smith

        Your boss may benefit from a quote by Nelson Mandela about good leadership: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when good things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

  • Fraser Reading

    An extension to 7 perhaps, I think to be truly groundbreaking or increase the chances of an organisation making groundbreaking business decisions and progress, a great leader will actively encourage increased diversity within the workplace in order to achieve heightened creativity and innovation.

    • Michelle Smith

      Excellent point, Fraser – thanks for mentioning it. And wouldn’t we all like to see that diversity extended into the C-Suite more frequently too!?!

  • Elizabeth Rankin

    Great article. A must read for all.

    • Michelle Smith

      Thank you, Elizabeth. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it.

  • Bernard

    Great article

    • Michelle Smith

      Thank you, Bernard.

  • Robert Ford

    It’s the one who says “it was them” – pointing to his team when a great accomplishment is being recognized and can also say “it was all me” when something goes bad. When you see somebody line that go work for him/her.

    • Michelle Smith

      Hear, hear, Robert! Nelson Mandela had a similar quote about good leadership: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when good things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

  • Beth Vawter


    • Michelle Smith

      Thanks, Beth.

  • Anastasia71

    This list is amazing and all traits I actively strive for. I recently read an article 5 Signs You’re About to Be Fired. Judging by it only about two people in our department *weren’t* about to be fired (our “leader” and his minion) so that illustrates the dysfunction of our leadership and how they treated us. I can’t really add to this articles great list, as after leaving such dysfunction after 5 years I’m simply hoping ANY leader at my new job strives for at least one thing on this list of traits. I’ll keep the article and print it out to remind me.

    • Michelle Smith

      You’ve done the right thing by getting away from the dysfunction and making a new start. Although I wish ALL leaders ‘lived’ this list, I understand that’s not realistic. However, we need to keep trying to set the example with our own behavior and help the leaders who are willing to improve to do so. As an optimist, I like to believe that most leaders DO want to become better, they just may not know how or aren’t given the feedback to make them aware of their areas for improvement. I wish you success – and better leadership – in your new job!

  • TiwannaMSNRN

    Awesome and motivating article that really touched my heart. As a young Nurse Leader, i try my best to lead my team through building upon trust. I also make sure to be fair, and treat each of them with dignity and respect. I motivate, educate, train, and encouraged my team to be better and practice nursing above standards. This article helped me to understand even more, just how important these characteristics are.

    • Michelle Smith

      Thank you for setting such a fine example of leadership in a profession that requires the utmost in leadership! Not only is healthcare currently going through great upset (which can be very unsettling for your team and they’ll need your guidance and trust more than ever), but how they conduct themselves with patients really can make the difference between life and death. There’s a wealth of research that has shown a correlation between the level of healthcare workers’ engagement in their work and the quality of patient care and satisfaction. Keep up the great work.

  • Isaiah Hayes

    A great leader should do two things in cohesion of these facets; teach and lead by example. These are all very important characteristics, and the idea of being far more effective is possible if one is able to “teach” their contact (staff, friends, family, co-workers) the importance of the characteristics, and reinforce the importance by example. Imagine how effective a team of leaders would be, opposed to a team, following a great leader.

    …Interesting thought.

    – Isaiah Hayes
    CoastLine Music Group, LLC (opening March, 2014)

    • Michelle Smith

      Isaiah, your point is very well-taken, and what I was aiming for in ‘developing followers,’ but you have expressed it far better. Every leader should lead by example, with the goal of developing each of their team members to their highest abilities. Or as you so eloquently say, “imagine how effective a team of leaders would be.” Thank you for bringing out that point so well.