What Traits or Characteristics Does a Leader Need?

leadership traits and characteristics
Are Leaders Born or Made? (Photo by Pixabay)

Are you born with the qualities of a leader or is leadership a skill that can be learned?

What does a leader look like? What qualities or traits should they have? Commonly people will say a leader should be, ‘tall, attractive, confident, charismatic, and intelligent’  But if this is the case it makes us all wonder; do we have what it takes to be a leader?

Unhealthy Comparisons

I found this stereotype of leadership very troubling when I was younger, particularly when I directly compared myself to this list and some leaders that ticked all the boxes.

Handsome Alexander the Great had unified (subdued) Greece by the age of 20 and the charismatic Joan of Arc led the relief of Orleans aged 17. How did I measure up in my teens? 

Well, I was just over average height, mildly intelligent, but gawky, introverted and softly spoken. I struggled with huge self-esteem and confidence issues surrounding whether I was attractive. It did not help that I was your classic spotty and greasy-haired teenager. But this was exacerbated by suffering years of orthodontic dental work. To get an idea of how much metalwork I was displaying, let’s just say that I could set off the detectors in airport security while still at check-in! 

Basically, I fell well short of the mark on pretty much every populist leader trait as listed above. But hey, Alexander the Great had achieved a lot by the age of 20, but he was born into a royal family, and he never had to deal with my dentist!

Are people born to be leaders?

Most of us are not born into privilege or are so naturally gifted that we can just switch on cruise control for the rest of our lives. So where does that leave us if we were not born leaders?

The debate around nature or nurture is one of the longest-running in the field of psychology. It basically comes down to whether one places more importance on our genetic inheritance, or on how environmental factors influence us. Nowhere has this been more hotly contested than in the field of leadership. 

Initial leadership theories tended towards the idea that leaders were born, that we were sent ‘Great Men’ to lead us in times of crisis. This theory then evolved as people tried to identify the common traits these leaders were born with.

Leadership Traits

As alluded to previously, early lists of traits included the need for: 

  • Height 
  • Intelligence  
  • Attractiveness
  • Self-confidence
  • Charisma

As we have seen, these supposed leadership qualities were not ones I could readily associate with. I was at best an ugly duckling of a leader and there was no promise of great genes suddenly turning me into some great swan. That left me furiously paddling about, trying to live up to this supposed ideal of a leader. 

In this desperation, I was tempted to pursue other negative leadership stereotypes and try to dominate people to make up for my lack of natural charisma. 

The trap of toxic leadership

This view of leadership can entrap us. It can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment, or the rise of hubristic and toxic leaders.

If we hold up an unrealistic view of leaders, such as the list above, we preserve an unachievable ideal. What we are effectively after is a superhero rather than a manager. This leads to one of two outcomes, either all the people will encounter fall short of our ideal or we put people on a pedestal only to watch them fall off it. They are only human after all.

Putting people on a pedestal can lead to hubristic or toxic leadership. Even if a leader does not start out as arrogant and self-centred they can quickly become so given power and adulation. Stories of raising up such charismatic but flawed leaders go back at least as far as King Saul in the Old Testament. But, looking at the rise of populist leaders today, it seems we may not have learned that much in the last 3000 years.

Breaking the mould

Despite the perpetuation of this flawed ideal, and my fumbling start, I was surprised to find that people did continue to give me responsibility. What’s more, I could certainly influence people, even if it was just in some small way. These people were generally few in number, and among my school friends or sports-buddies, but it was something!

Therefore, I was able to lead in some contexts despite not living up to the leadership stereotype; why was that? When I looked around me, I could see plenty of other examples of leaders who did not fit this early leadership stereotype either. In fact, most of the people I knew in leadership positions did not exactly fit this mould.

Some well-known historical figures have also had huge influence despite not having all these traits. Mother Teresa comes to mind as someone who did not fit this typecast, yet she had a profound effect upon the world. She did this from a position of genuine humility. She did not worry about the power she lacked; but rather concentrated on the change, however small, she could affect:

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Mother Teresa

She was literally the antithesis of the ‘Great Man’, but she will be remembered far longer than most of the populist world leaders of today. If leadership is influence, then her legacy proves that she was indeed a great leader.

What makes a good leader?

So, there must be other important and useful leadership attributes. More recent research has identified and used other traits to assess good leaders. Common among these are:

  • Personal Integrity
  • Drive and Determination
  • Emotional Stability or Maturity
  • Self-confidence

These are certainly more instructive than earlier traits and I am sure we can all think of a lot more leaders who show a larger measure of these characteristics, as compared to the earlier list. But even with a new list of attributes, one big question is still unanswered.

Are Leaders Born or Bred?

In the middle of the twentieth century, the emphasis shifted from nature (innate) to nurture (learned) aspects of leadership. In other words, people started to believe that leadership could be taught. This put an increasing emphasis on what a leader did, rather than just a person’s supposed God-given right to lead. 

This is somewhat unsurprising in the aftermath of the Second World War when so much of the planet had been ravaged by the excesses of ‘Great Men’ such as Hitler. Many others were still suffering under Stalin and Mao. People started to wake up to the idea that a person assuming they were in the right (just because they were in control and claimed some sort of destiny) was a flawed basis for leadership. 

From Being to Doing

The emphasis on leadership now turned to the skills that leaders needed to be effective. These were grouped as technicalhuman and conceptual skills. There was also an appreciation that certain traits can also be developed over time. Experience certainly reinforces the idea that we can improve. This has been my personal experience and the story of my own leadership development over the years.


Personal integrity is reinforced every time we act in accordance with what we say. It is the opposite of the ‘do what I say but not what I do’ type of management.

The first real test of integrity for me happened at school. When I was made a prefect, I suddenly had to ensure that my standards of behaviour matched the rules I was there to reinforce. It required self-discipline and moral courage (two more important traits) as I could not just walk past things I knew were wrong, even if it was my friends who were out of line. This concept of ‘you are only as good as the wrong you pass by’ was reinforced in my career in the military. As a leader you have to uphold the values you espouse, or your credibility and authority will crumble.


You need determination as a leader if you are to persuade people to come with you, overcome obstacles and achieve your goal.

I did not realise it at the time but some of my determination was forged in the outdoors. As I pushed myself to climb mountains or explore jungles, I developed what Angela Lee Duckworth calls ‘grit’. Grit is the dogged determination that you need to see things through in the face of adversity. This grit turns out to be more important than IQ when it comes to succeeding.

And there is the rub. You have to face troubles and hardship if you want to develop grit and determination. So don’t back down from a challenge. Embrace it, even if you fail, you will be stronger – battle-hardened – afterwards. These challenges don’t need to be huge, just anything that pushes you out of your comfort zone.

Emotional Maturity

Have you ever had a boss who everyone tip-toed around? In this situation, the team feels like villagers living under the shadow of a volcano that is always on the verge of eruption. Or how about a manager who cannot read the situation? They make inappropriate jokes, try to be chummy in an important meeting but then authoritarian at the office social. They are impossible to read or predict. This is the opposite of emotional maturity and emotional intelligence.

People who are emotionally mature can manage their emotions in a way that is appropriate to the situation. That does not mean being unemotional though. We are humans, not automatons. Being emotional maturity means we can laugh when people laugh, cry when people cry, but at the same time we are not ruled by our emotions. The emotionally mature person is not the rubber dingy being thrown about by the waves. They are the harbour of calm; an environment where people can be secure in themselves and confident they can work without fear of a sudden storm.

Some parts of emotional stability and intelligence are innate but we can also learn to be more stable and empathetic as leaders. Self-awareness, proper rest, breathing techniques and mindfulness can all help. Over the years I have found that walking is one of my best ways to re-stabilise my thoughts and emotions. I walk to and from work and in between meetings to give me time to reflect and process emotions. It is worth experimenting with a few techniques and finding out what works best for you.


As alluded to earlier, I am an introvert and was not born with huge self-confidence. My confidence has developed over time. Experience, as with the other traits above, has built my confidence. Somewhat counterintuitively, my self-confidence has grown as I have been more willing to share and learn from my mistakes. That is because humility and confidence are not opposites. Equally, confidence is not arrogance.

One area that many people struggle with, but particularly introverts, is public speaking. Getting up in front of a crowd to do a presentation, or even just to ask a question in a meeting, takes courage. Here once again I have found that with practice, taking on a new mindset and applying a few techniques I have learned to love public speaking.

Leadership development happens one step at a time

Therefore, there is hope for us all. We don’t have to be born a fully-fledged leader. Strengths and weaknesses, in our character and skillset, can all be improved upon. This has certainly been my experience and having been given opportunities to lead, over many years, my confidence and capability as a leader have certainly grown.  

How about you? Which characteristic or trait do you most want to develop as a leader? Think of a small practical way you can develop that today. That might be something as small as tackling that task you have been avoiding, having that difficult conversation you have been dodging, or just speaking up in your next meeting. 

Practice does not make perfect, but it does make practice easier. If you make that little bit of progress today, the same action will be a little easier tomorrow. You may not have been born a leader, but you can certainly learn to be a better leader than you are now. Make that first step!

If you would like access to some bonus content and get updates then please do sign up to my email list.


Cowley, W. H. (1931). The traits of face-to-face leadersThe Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 26(3), 304-313.

Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary genius. New York: Appleton.

Judge T, Bono J, Remus I, Gerhart M (2002) Personality and Leadership: A Qualitative and Quantitative ReviewJournal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 87, No. 4, 765–780 

Mumford TV, Campion MA, Morgeson FP (2007) The leadership skills strataplex: Leadership skill requirements across organizational levels, The LeadershipQuarterly, Elsevier

Stogdill, R. M. (1948). Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the literatureJournal of Psychology, 25, 35–71

3 thoughts on “What Traits or Characteristics Does a Leader Need?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.