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5 Learnable Qualities of Great Leaders

Sep 18, 2012

Are leadership qualities innate or can they be acquired? This question has obsessed leadership scholars for years, and while there is no consensus answer, some research does suggest that leadership skills can be developed and mastered. Here we look at five trainable (and highly valuable) traits of a good leader.

The belief that we have a leadership crisis is at its highest level since 2008, based on the latest National Leadership Index released by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and Merriman River Group in December.

It's no wonder. In the workplace alone, managers feel ill-equipped to lead. In a 2011 survey, more than a quarter of managers said they weren't ready to become a leader when they started managing others.

The terms "manager" and "leader" are often used interchangeably, even though the roles are wholly different. Whereas managers are facilitators of their team's success, ensuring their people have the resources needed to be productive, leaders can be anybody on the team with a particular talent that can prove useful to the entire unit. Management provides structure and stability, while leadership provides inspiration and influence.

While there is no consensus about whether leaders are born or made, some research does suggest that leadership skills can be developed and mastered.

"The best estimates offered by research is that leadership is about one-third born and two-thirds made," leadership expert Ronald E. Riggio writes at Psychology Today. "The job of leading an organization, a military unit or a nation, and doing so effectively, is fantastically complex. To expect that a person would be born with all of the tools needed to lead just doesn't make sense based on what we know about the complexity of social groups and processes."

If leadership is something that can be partly learned, or at least developed, then the question is: Which specific qualities should be cultivated? The following are a few key traits and qualities of a good leader that can be improved over time.

Vision - Leaders learn to regularly communicate their vision or the vision of their company to the people they want to follow them.

"Setting a meaningful vision is critical to the effectiveness of any leader because it sets the stage for strategically aligning the team around a unified purpose, provides each player on the team with a role that ties back to the collective vision and serves as a rallying cry that inspires the team," Adam Bandelli, principal of leadership coaching firm RHR International, tells CareerBuilder. "When a meaningful vision is not put in to place by the leader and his [or] her team, the focus of the group can become clouded and ultimately lead to derailment."

Being clear with employees about standards and goals - and why they matter - helps employees focus on both the big picture and day-to-day execution.

Courage - Leaders are willing to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. They realize that even unsuccessful attempts to accomplish something can prove useful so long as they learn from the experience.

"The capacity to learn and apply life's lessons, whether acquired through an academic process or real-world experience, is key to becoming and remaining a successful leader," Fast Company states.

Self-Reflection - Leaders are conscious of their own abilities and the limits thereof. Successful leaders are clear about who they are and what is most important to them, but are willing to re-evaluate.

In learning to recognize what their own strengths and weaknesses are, leaders can better understand what complementary strengths they need from others, and then make the best use of the team members' unique talents.

"Your job as a leader is to understand each person's strengths and place them in positions where they can flourish and grow," Nancy Clark, author of 18 Holes for Leadership, tells CareerBuilder. "If you are good at that, you have a huge part of the equation for success."

Empowerment - Leaders embolden employees, challenging them, seeking their ideas and contributions and providing them with recognition for their work.

"Employee empowerment has become one of the key characteristics of innovative and ultimately profitable companies," IndustryWeek explains. "When leaders give other people around them a voice in the decision-making process, they foster collaboration and, again, build trust."

When you give team members the ability to take advantage of opportunities, it sends a powerful message: You trust them. They, in turn, will be enthused by what they do, feel more connected to their work and ultimately return that trust in spades.

Authenticity - Above all, true leaders learn to lead by example.

"Leaders must be willing to serve as models for their employees' behavior by matching their words with their actions," IndustryWeek states.

Leading by example not only helps earn employees' trust, but also sends the message that leaders are not asking people to do something they wouldn't do themselves. Leaders are clear on what their values are and are consistent in applying them. As part of that, they must have the courage to hold true to them.

These are only a few of the achievable qualities that make for a good leader, but if you can learn to cultivate these traits, you're well on your way to becoming a true leader.

What other qualities or traits do you think are necessary for strong leadership? Let us know in the comments section below.