Consider the last time you heard a truly inspiring speech.
Some of you may be old enough to recall JFK’s moon speech and his motivational words that we do things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Here at home, most of us can recall former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech shortly after the death of Princess Diana in August of 1997. His words for the “people’s princess” providing comfort in a time of deeply felt sorrow.
Alternatively, the words that last moved you may not have originated from a president dictating a new direction or lifting a people in a time of conflict. Maybe it came from someone you had a more direct and immediate relationship with.
Perhaps it was from the professor helping you through a complicated area of study.
Maybe it was a professional challenge and a track to success from a respected supervisor to help raise your sales game.
Or a simple pick-me-up from a well-regarded friend or acquaintance who always seems to know the right thing to say.
Though the setting and circumstances vary, and the source moves from the grandiose to the granular, all of these examples reflect individuals taking on leadership roles.
What makes this individual stand-out? More specifically what makes them lead, or even want to?
Is leadership an inherited trait, something you’re born with, or can it be learned, developed and refined over time?
Let's take a look at the common traits these remarkable people possess. See if you are ready to blaze your own path to become a trusted and respected individual that people look to for influence and authority.
What Is a Leader?
As the Oxford dictionary defines it, a leader is “the person who leads or commands a group, organisation, or country.”
If only it were that simple.
Ask ten people what a leader is, and you’ll no doubt get ten different answers.
Ask ten others what makes a leader great, and almost certainly you’ll get ten more equally diverse responses.
What we can take from that is a leader can be many things to many people.
Let’s look again at our examples to fully understand the divergent ways in which a leader can influence.
In the case of our examples, one leader laid out a vision for the future; the other brought about a sense of unity and healing.
For the cases of leadership that are closer to home, there were instances of guidance and coaching, motivation and communication, positivity and encouragement.
Even in the simplicity of our examples, you could easily apply almost every trait to each individual.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Leaders are more than just morale boosters and direction givers. They also cast a physical presence in much of what they do. These aspects, particularly in genuinely great leaders, take the mantra of "show me, don’t tell me" to an entirely different level.
Here we can draw from the vicar of a church not just asking their congregation to help volunteer in the community, but leading the way. They are the first one to show up and the last one to leave.
You can also look to the athlete determined to run faster, jump higher, and reach farther than anyone who’s come before. This not only works on the field of play, but in business too - the big dreamers, executives, and regular employees who work tirelessly to realise their goals.
Finally, there is the inventor or visionary willing to stand in the face of criticism or who understands failure is but another opportunity to succeed.
So leaders come in all varieties with diverse backgrounds and distinct disciplines. However, dive deeper, and you see a consistent pattern of traits that all great leaders share.
The Major Traits of a Leader
Great leaders may not necessarily possess every trait listed here, although a lot of them will have mastered more than a few. Instead, effective leaders understand their strengths and weaknesses, where they excel and the areas that need work.
Beyond that, they know the traits they can rely on most. They also know where to improve are not afraid or shy about developing those areas.
If you aspire to be a leader, this is where you need to start.
Great leaders understand how to reach those they have influence over. More importantly, they know how to connect with those they don’t. After all, excellent communication goes beyond the basics of writing or talking. It also means the ability to convey ideas clearly and directly and to have people see and understand a vision or goal.
The compliment to great communication is knowing when to listen, and effective leaders know when to close their mouths and to open their ears. More than an individual who leads a team and dispenses direction, a leader is one who absorbs information, looking for different perspectives, ideas and never-ending acquisition of knowledge.
Knowledge is vital to good leadership, and many good leaders attain a lot of experience on their way to gaining success. Great leaders, however, never stop learning and are the ones who maintain and strengthen their leadership qualities (and, of course, their leadership positions). No matter what the discipline, the world is always evolving, and a smart leader is one who never stops evolving with it.
This aspect of influencing others will many times separate good leaders from great ones. Great leaders recognize the value of surrounding themselves with a strong, knowledgeable team. The more information and insight that the leader can give to those around them the better they all will be.
Although successful leaders are in a constant search for knowledge, they do not know everything. The most effective leaders do not back away from admitting that either. Great leaders do not hesitate to ask questions and will surround themselves will people who help them attain the expertise they do not yet possess.
Whether it's their employees, the challenge of a task, the time it takes to complete it, or any other number of details, leaders understand the ingredients that go into success. Since they often must see the bigger picture, they appreciate all of the moving pieces it takes to cross the finish line, including recognising that the journey is equally as important as the destination.
We understand this one might seem a bit obvious, but it's less about the overall act and more about the willingness to put themselves out there. Great leaders do not shy away from being the face or voice of their vision. Instead, they embrace it. Often you find leaders who thrive when in the public view, and the great ones aim to be in the mix during moments both big and small.
Although leaders love to confront challenges head-on, they also understand a change in thinking is at times a necessary path to achieve specific outcomes. This is why leaders, more than most, are flexible and unafraid to entertain new ideas or embrace emerging technologies or concepts.
How Do You Become a Leader?
Aside from working diligently to acquire and build upon the traits listed above, there are several more attributes that can guide you along your path to becoming a figure of authority. These are the intangibles that not only make you a great leader but a trusted and respected one.
For example, a lot of us are good communicators, but it's not enough to speak well and deliver a clear message. Your words must carry with them honesty, authenticity, and provide people with a guiding purpose.
So take any of the above eight concepts, and combined them with the following three qualities, and your leadership skills will start to blossom in full.
Be Open and Honest
History supplies us plenty of examples of failed leaders who led through deceit and with a narrow mind. Leaders with staying power are ones who operate with transparency and integrity - not only in their professional life but their personal one too. Develop a strong core of values and live by them in every aspect of your life. The greater example you set, the more you’ll witness those around you emulating those same high standards.
Maintain a Positive Attitude
In a leadership role, your job is not merely to direct those you hold influence over, but to also guide them in times of trouble, encourage their efforts, and celebrate their wins. This requires you remaining upbeat, even in moments when you find it difficult yourself. A leader ultimately reveals their true selves in times of adversity. Learning how to keep your wits when things go awry will ensure you are always the one steering the boat.
Show the Way
One of the most overlooked aspects of leadership is the leader's role as a visionary. Not just an ideas person or only crafting the goal but tapping into strategies, innovation, and possessing a deep understanding of the requirements of success in a particular industry or discipline.
This is especially true if working with a younger team or certain concepts or in an industry that are in their infancy. A leader is an expert, the authority. Of course, nobody has all of the answers, but great leaders commit to finding them. Dedicate yourself to anticipating the questions and knowing how to acquire the solutions.
There are some that believe leaders are born, and not made. While it's true a small percentage develop an innate ability to lead others at an early age, the majority who show exceptional leadership, learn and grow their skills over time.
Commit to improving yourself.
Develop a set of values.
Never doubt your ability to truly be great.
After all, the greatest leaders of our time didn’t become the influencers they did because they thought they could. They realised their visions because they knew they could.