A few weeks ago, I wrote a Friday Forward about the leadership throughout the American response to COVID-19, which generated many passionate replies. What I saw in the various responses is that for many of us, our perspective on what constitutes effective leadership is often informed or even distorted by our political lenses.

Many also believe it is unfair to criticize or hold politicians accountable for their leadership aptitude. I disagree with this viewpoint.

I have always thought of great leadership as a more universally objective standard. We are better off when we can find fault with the leadership performance of people we agree with politically, and recognize the abilities of excellent leaders we disagree with as well. There are certain qualities and behaviors every great leader needs to demonstrate, regardless of their ideology.

Over the years, I have read and saved many lists that detail the characteristics of historically great leaders from business, sports, politics, the military and other areas. Looking back on all these lists, these 10 leadership qualities constantly crop up, in no particular order:

1. Integrity: People want leaders they can trust to act for the greater good and tell the truth. We want leaders who act according to their stated principles, are honest with us and keep their word.

2. Humility: As we shift away from command and control leadership, we gravitate toward leaders who are approachable and don’t hold themselves above others. When leaders show humility and vulnerability, others instinctively want to work with them to achieve their goals.

3: Empowering Others: Great leaders trust the people on their team and coach them to make important decisions without micromanagement. They don’t do everything themselves—instead, they set clear vision and values, and direct others to work according to those guiding principles.

4. Great Communication: Leaders must communicate well, both to move others to action and to ensure their directives are well-understood. It’s no surprise that we often celebrate leaders who deliver historic speeches or impactful quotes. Great leaders also give their teams the information they need to excel.

5. Forward-Thinking: A great leader sets a compelling vision for the future, attracting and convincing others to want to join their movement. These leaders are capable of sharing their vision with clarity and specificity, and they are passionate about the execution of those goals.

6. Empathy: We want our leaders to demonstrate empathy and an ability to relate to those they lead, especially in moments of crisis. A leader cannot effectively lead someone if they fail to understand their fundamental needs, and if they cannot connect others’ fulfillment to their own.

7. Competence: Leaders must be capable of doing the job at hand, and surround themselves with competent people. Competent leaders don’t know how to do everything, but are skilled at identifying people whose abilities complement their own, and bringing them into the fold. They also aren’t afraid to hire people who are smarter than they are.

8. Accountable: Great leaders have a “the buck stops here,” mentality. History is filled with leaders who credit their teams for their successes and accept personal responsibility for the team’s failures. Poor leaders do the opposite, taking credit for their teams’ accomplishments and distancing themselves from accountability.

9. Gratitude: One of the core responsibilities of a leader is to consider the needs of the many. A mindset of gratitude pushes leaders to focus less on themselves and more on how they can value and strengthen others.

10. Self-Awareness: Leaders must be aware of their own strengths and limitations. They have to build a team that magnifies their strengths and limits their weaknesses. Leaders are also open to criticism and willing to do the sometimes-painful work required to improve.

While we may never reach a consensus on political leadership, it’s crucial to identify an apolitical benchmark by which we evaluate all our leaders. Great leadership should be an objective metric, not a changing threshold viewed through a political or ideological lens; otherwise, the term itself is meaningless.

Finally, we should not have to shy away from holding our leaders accountable for results; the great ones do it for themselves.

Quote of The Week

“No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.”


– Andrew Carnegie