Leadership: Getting It Done

Chapter 4
Important Personal Traits of Effective Leaders

Personality | Persuasive | Persistence | Patience | Perceptive | Probity | Praise Giving | Positive Orientation | People Based | Possible | Practical | Progressive | Prepared | Power-Building


"traits plus motivation equals leadership"

Successful leaders come in a wide variety of personal characteristics such as their ability to make speeches in public or to relate to people in groups or individually. We have all met successful leaders that we wondered what enabled them to be effective. Some are smooth and some are rough. Some are charming and some….. It is impossible to find any one characteristic that all of them have and many non-leaders do not have.

Motivation is the most important characteristic (yes, it can be called a trait) of any leader. Even the shyest person may become a hard charger if something near and dear to them is threatened. I have seen numerous quiet people suddenly find their public voices when NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) became real to them as some type of development became threatened their back yards. Talk to parents of school age children and many will step out of the quiet shells. After the threat or need passes, some of these people return to their non-public roles, but others find that they have some previously unknown or newly developed skills that can be used in other leadership activities. These will become the community and organizational leaders of the future.

Communications skills are the second most important. If you cannot communicate effectively, you cannot be an effective leader. But as I discuss below, communications is much more than being a good speaker.

Despite the great diversity among leaders, there are some characteristics or traits which most successful leaders have. These are the "Traits" listed here. Very few leaders have all of them to the limit, but the most effective leaders will have most of them well developed. A few leaders will have only a few of these traits such persistence or the ability to get people to work together, but they are likely to have those few very well developed.

The fourteen traits described here are the "tools of the trade." Not all of them will be used in every leadership situation, but like other tools, they are available if needed. All of these characteristics can be developed or attained. None are genetic, although some of the traits may be the gifts of wise parents to some very fortunate young people. For many of us, they are the results of hard work over years of time (very slowly developed habits in most cases). I have talked to many successful politicians, bankers, judges and leaders of many other types, almost to a person they have said that they have worked over the years to further improve their skills. Some have done it through formal classes or sessions with professionals, other through observation and practice; but all have worked at honing their abilities. After looking back over my own struggles to obtain more of these, I have come to strongly believe that almost any person can with sufficient motivation and work develop to a considerable degree all fourteen of the traits. I quickly not that today, I am not a skilled speaker or writer, but I can get my message across. One of favorite activities is selling - of ideas. Turn me lose with a small group and a good idea and I am in close to heaven.

The equation for success as a leader is very simple: the more of these traits (tools) you have successfully developed the greater the probability of your success in most types of leadership and, indeed, in most careers.

These traits plus motivation equals leadership!


1. An outgoing style - the ability and enjoyment of "working the crowd" is a very useful skill both for leadership and many other parts of life. I have a friend who whenever he is in a meeting or a party, makes sure that he shakes every hand and greets every person.

Charisma is often thought of as a trait of many leaders. We are not quite sure what charisma is. It is probably the ability of a person to gain very quickly the attention, respect and trust of others. Famous leaders like Martin Luther King and John Kennedy is said to have had charisma. No question, it is an effective tool for leaders in certain situations, but it is difficult to learn.

Humor and warmth are effective in most leadership (and non-leadership) situations. If we are not fortunate enough to have them now, we can develop them. Start by developing a good smile and laugh. This will be hard for many males in our culture who have been acculturated to be stoic with a stone face. Women have a distinct advantage in being encouraged to smile and to show emotions. This will take a long period of consistent self-conscious efforts. My father was a wonderful, but stoic Missouri farmer who smiled little. I, of course, modeled myself after him. Thus, I have worked on my smile for years (still do).

The ability to deliver one-liners and tell a few jokes helps also. Joke telling must be done with considerable care. The most effective humor concerns your self. Forgetful jokes work well for me. After all, professors are supposed to be forgetful. Don't tell jokes that put down any group - no ethnic, no mother-in-law jokes, etc. You will lose more than you will win with such jokes.

Another useful characteristic is the ability to remember personal characteristics such as names, items about the family, how many children they have, etc. People like to hear their names. It recognizes them as a unique individual.

I suggest taking one or more courses in "acting" for helping to add traits to your personality. We all "play" many different roles every day. Every young person knows the "child" roles as well as parents know the "parenting" role. Learning acting helps us to focus on characteristics of our own personalities by learning to more formally play roles. Some people think of acting as "faking it." The line between "faking" it and real behavior is thin and hard to define. We must always be sincere; people do not like "acting" in real life.

The time to start the change in your personal skills is today.



2. Communications skills - you must be able to speak effectively in public and in most cases, you must have good writing skills also. You must be able to communicate in the style or jargon of the group or organization. Your message must fit your audience. For example, large words and complex sentences will not work with people of limited formal education. Writing in technical terms may help in a few instances, but writing in clear simple terms helps in almost all cases. Well-educated people can understand simple clear information; but those with limited education cannot go the other way. The old KISS principle (keep it simple - stupid) has much utility.

Words are often not enough. Most people today get most of their information from TV and the most widely read newspaper is USA Today. TV news programs and USA Today both use simple styles with lots of color, pictures and graphs. Pictures and other visual aids are especially useful in helping people understand abstract ideas.

I strongly encourage you to take every opportunity through courses or informal opportunities to improve your communications skills. These traits, truly, are the bottom line of leadership - with them, successful leadership (and many other types of success) is an open door - without them, success will be a struggle.



3. Keep trying - most social changes, large and small, is and should be slow. Major changes in values and beliefs often occur between generations. It is unusual for major social changes to occur in less than a few years or even decades. Changes in the educational system often take several decades. If change occurs too fast, people become uncertain about what is "right," good or appropriate. They lose their sense of security. Something as simple as a small change in curriculum of the local school system may take years. But if the idea is good, the results may last decades and effect many people. Also realize that in historical perspective, the changes you are working toward are small and incremental.

Be prepared for an effort of several years when you start the process of bringing about change in your organization or community. A university employs me and universities are very slow to change. For example, we are still teaching using nineteenth century methods even though we are almost in the twenty-first century. The major change has been in some cases, the chairs. Most, but not all, have been changed, but the professor still uses a chalkboard and basically, lectures. Obviously, many people with excellent leadership skills have tried to change the teaching methods, but the rate of change is very slow. It takes about fifty years for a significant change to occur in education.

Leadership in major projects will require a large among of stamina and perseverance.



4. There are times when you will need to relax and wait for events or time to pass. Many new ideas will become accepted after people have had time to think about them. Most people who are angry or excited about a proposed change will cool down with time. Patience is a hard attribute for many young and not so young to learn. Most things, especially if they are worthwhile, do not happen quickly. Self-discipline is an essential trait for leadership.

Patience and persistence are essential twins for getting things done. Always remember it takes time, time for leadership, and time for change. Patience and persistence are very difficult traits for the young. The American culture wants it now - not tomorrow. But the real world does not work that way.



5. You must be sensitive to other people's wants and needs and to changes in these wants and needs. Genuine interest in another person will often develop a sense of trust by that person. A gifted politician is one who can carefully always perceive the current mood of his constituents. The ability to listen is an essential skill of a good leader. You must stay in touch with your supporters. If the group is large or unorganized, this is very difficult to do because of the lack of accurate feedback.

As a public leader, I find it difficult to differentiate between isolated concerns about issues which effect only one or a few people and more general concerns. Most people will not take the time to make contact and discuss issues unless the issue becomes important to them. Public leaders also have to aware of organized campaigns by relatively small special interest groups. How large a group or how important an issue do these people really represent? They often have the intent of benefiting only themselves.



6. Honesty and trustworthy, you need to be honest both now and in the future. Most people will believe and follow someone they trust. Openness and candor are characteristics that most people appreciate. There are a few people who will take advantage of such traits, but the vast majority will appreciate them.

The age-old Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a good standard to follow both today and tomorrow.

Leaders of today are under very careful public scrutiny from the press and the people. Formerly private actions and records are now public. Several potential political appointments have been turned down because of past "sins." You may not plan to be a leader in the future, but events and plans change and you may find yourself unexpectedly in a leadership position. Suddenly, all of your current qualifications and past actions are under scrutiny. How will your college activities or other youthful escapades look in the future when you are seeking the office of _____? President Clinton's problems of trying to explain his youthful marihuana smoking with his famous "but I didn't inhale" statement illustrates the difficulty of justifying past actions. It is very difficult to reclaim a reputation that has been tarnished with charges of dishonesty or other questionable behavior.

I cannot leave this topic without noting that honesty along with some other traits is often more admired than practiced. Indeed, a question can be raised here. People want honesty, but do they also want in the same measure of candor? My observation is that people will say they want to know, but actually prefer not to have details, especially if they may be somewhat disagreeable.


praise giving

7. "Strokes" - almost all people like praise and compliments. Almost everyone likes to be recognized especially if they have worked hard on the project. It may be possible to give too many kind words, but it is very difficult to do so especially if they are given in a sincere manner. If you, a leader, are working with a committee or other team, make absolutely sure that everyone is given full public recognition. If you don't, your support the next time is likely to be much less.

The folk saying: "praise in public and criticize in private" is very effective. But the praise should be deserved; a person can quickly develop a reputation as overly "smoothie."

Mistakes and errors must be dealt with as quickly as possible. If the errors are part of the public record, then your responses should be public also. However, you should take the public blame. Do not point to some supporter or employee and say: "it was all their fault." If you do, your career as a leader will be short!

Another folk saying that comes to mind: "honey attracts more flies than vinegar." People are more attracted by praise than by criticism and will be willing to work on change if their contributions are acknowledged.

I can not say it to strongly, it is very important that people be given recognition for their contributions. A self-effacing leader who gives the credit to his/her supporters will attract many more followers than one who brags on "my" accomplishments.

A simple thank you is very effective especially when sincerely given and meant!

Note: you should also be gracious in accepting compliments.


positive orientation

8. The future should always be seen as bright and optimistic. Tomorrow will be better than today. Norman Vincent Peale in his best selling book of fifty years ago, The Power of Positive Thinking, contributed to a deeply held American belief about what the future will be like. We as a culture have an aversion to the negative except, paradoxically, in the mass media where the only "news" is defined to be negative stories - what went wrong today - crimes, injures, death and destruction. We prefer the positive in our personal and everyday lives. We want to think that the future will be better than today, that things can and will improve. Problems can be solved by our actions. And we want our leaders to portray a positive optimistic attitude. Problems are not "problems", but opportunities. Simultaneously, we want our leaders to be honest and realistic. So in dismal situations, the statements of optimism must be tempered. If there are no easy answers, say so. You must be open and honest.

W. I. Thomas wrote many years ago about self-fulfilling prophecies. If a person or group believes a thing to be true and operates, as though it were true, often it becomes true. This has been proven often in education and other fields. If a leader takes a positive stance, it will be more popular and the desired action is more likely to occur.

Always assume that someone will closely examine your stance on almost anything you say or do.

A motto you might want to try: "Pessimism breeds negativity. Optimism breeds opportunity."


people based

9. Leadership must be of, by and for the people. The only reason for leadership should be for the benefit of the people. The current tendency is to look for the benefits to an individual and not to the larger group. One reason why many so-called leaders are distrusted today is that they are seen as self-serving - primarily interested in their own benefits. Congress is seen as a "good old boys' club" with high salaries and super plush benefits; not at all like the citizen-legislators which the founding fathers had in mind. The rapidly passing term limits on politicians are an attempt to reduce the number of professional politicians. Professional leaders of any type are likely to be seen as suspect.



10. A leader must be realistic to determine the art of the possible. How much can realistically be accomplished in the time and resources available? How strong is the desire for change? Are the people willing to pay the price either in reduced services or higher taxes - what ever it takes? Very often people call for changes, but when they find out how difficult or expensive it will be to solve the problems, they will not support the proposed solutions. Determining which ideas in any organization or setting are politically and economically feasible and which are not is a vital asset for any leader. Do not jump into "solving" a problem until you have given very careful consideration to the process of solution. Will the other people support the proposed solution? A little caution is a good asset for a leader. Bold and swift action by the knight on the white horse occurs primarily in the movies. An old folk saying has considerable wisdom for leadership: "fools rush in where angels fear to tread."



11. A leader must realize that pleasing all of the people all of the time is not possible. A leader must be practical in decisions made catering to the majority, perceptive enough to realize when the majority is right and strong enough to take action without the support of the majority when the majority is wrong. At the same time you must be strong enough to stand by your convictions and accept the criticisms - valid and invalid - which are sure to come.

Again, practical and possible are twins that have considerable interrelationships.



12. An effective leader will move the group forward. Incorporating new strategies in leadership and communications is important. Sometimes progress may mean maintaining the current situation. It depends upon the group's needs and desires.

And you must be progressive in other things such as media usage. A person cannot be a successful candidate for president or most other public offices if he/she cannot make full use of the media. The Kennedy - Nixon debates proved that many years ago. Similarly, many CEOs of businesses have found themselves suddenly facing the media to answer questions about their organization.



13. A leader must be knowledgeable about his or her goals, the variety of means for reaching the goals, the needs necessary to meet the goals and about the people in the group. An effective leader must be both organized and prepared. Many leaders have opened their mouths and inserted their foot and suddenly found that they were no longer regarded as leaders.

A more modern folk saying is that "you should not have your mouth in gear while your mind is in neutral."



14. Even the best leaders can not tackle most leadership jobs alone. They need to have and to motivate followers to become involved in getting the job done. They must trust other people to get a job done and they must be able to delegate. A similar trait is the ability to network - to build linkages of friends and acquaintances that may be able to provide needed assistance at some future time. A classic study by James Coleman many years ago showed that who you knew was one of the most important things that influenced life successes.

Close examination of all fourteen of these traits show that all are learned. Some are learned early in childhood and some later. However, the average person such as you or I can make major changes in any of these. I know that many of my characteristics have changed greatly from my early years. If I were the same person as then, I could not begin to do what I do today. Changes in personality are very possible, but for you, only you can do it. The first step is to want to do it.



A good sense of humor and laugh can be a wonderful tool in leadership!

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