Becoming a leader

A guest post by Gerard Smith, leadership author.

The test of time, changing roles and even technology may make leadership qualities look different but the truth is that leadership qualities have been remarkably consistent from the beginning of civilisation until today.

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As any effective leader will tell you, becoming a good leader and remaining an effective leader are ongoing, long-term pursuits. Developing the core leadership elements and sustaining them for years to come takes commitment and dedication to the idea that there is more to do and more leadership skills to learn and perfect.

Effective leaders have certain undeniable qualities. In this section, we will identify those qualities. In the following section, we shall examine them more closely and discuss how to become and remain an effective leader.

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Most leadership qualities are self-evident but it is the substance behind the commitment to the specific qualities that differentiates leadership strength. Enduring, effective leaders must possess the following characteristics and skills:

  • Honesty
  • Vision
  • Competency
  • Inspirational
  • Intelligence
  • Principles
  • Honour
  • Valour
  • Courage
  • Humility

There are other necessary traits but the individual who possesses these core characteristics, a good amount of patience, the willingness to work hard and an ability to manage risk will be successful at whatever he or she pursues. Being a leader can be a gratifying, rewarding and exhilarating experience but leadership is, and always will be, a challenging endeavour.


Honesty is more than not being dishonest or untruthful. Honesty is being transparent. A leader’s honesty is emitted through his or her actions, policies, personal and professional conduct and interactions. Honesty is not about making mistakes. In fact, great leaders admit their mistakes and move on. The ability to convert a negative situation into a positive outcome is an important part of the leader’s credibility.

One of the most significant statements about honesty was made by US President Harry S. Truman, who said point blank; “The buck stops here.” Truman also made the memorable statement; “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” Honest leaders stand up to the heat and they take responsibility for the actions of their business or organisation. The world could use more leaders who subscribe to these core concepts.


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As described in the popular leadership book, Leadership Challenge; “The whole point of leadership is figuring out where to go from where you are now.” Leaders assess their current position, envision their full potential and lead to the future. This is the primary responsibility of leaders. If the leader is absorbed in management of daily activities, he or she is not leading but managing. This is an important distinction.

When followers do not believe the leader has a forward vision, they perceive one of two things;

  • The leader lacks vision; or,
  • the leader is unwilling to share the vision for fear of failure.


Effective leaders are prepared to take calculated risks, pursue their vision and make adjustments along the way. Without vision, the leader is a follower.


Followers need to know their leadership is competent, not necessarily the foremost expert on the inner workings of the organization but understanding in the structure and responsibilities of every department. Being competent is not demonstrating incompetence. Competence is often achieved in acknowledging the attainment of team goals and demonstrating that company initiatives are working. Great leaders do not take all the credit but they make sure the achievements of those around them are duly recognized.


People want to be inspired and passionate about their pursuit, their future and the future of their organization. History has shown that people will follow an inspirational leader to extreme depths, even if the base of the inspiration is misguided. To inspire the CEO of Pepsi to leave his high-profile job and come to work for Apple, Steve Jobs asked; “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?”

An excellent technique to inspire is through storytelling, an acquired art form. Persons who lack charisma can learn to become inspirational. Stories are terrific venues for presenting a theme the leader wants to put forth. People listen to stories, especially stories that communicate on an emotional level. But, storytelling is only one way to be inspirational. Sharing the vision, displaying the competence, being honest and incorporating all the characteristics above and in the next section will make you a strong, respected and sustainable leader.

We have already discussed the Honesty, Vision, Competence, Inspirational attributes of leadership.  We continue in this section with a discussion of the remaining leadership characteristics.


Intelligence is a lifelong pursuit. There is no way to develop intelligence and sustain it without a serious allotment of time. According to Kouzes and Posner, authors of the Leadership Challenge, “Much of what is taught in college functions merely as a foundational language for lifelong educational experiences.”

Intelligence is acquired through the leader’s commitment to formal and informal learning on a continuing basis. If an individual reads 30 minutes per day, he or she is acquiring 182 hours of intelligence a year. With today’s online education and training courses and brick and mortar consultancies, most effective leaders continually find ways to increase their intelligence.

Great leaders do not have to display their intelligence to boost their persona. “If you build it, they will come.” Humility is one of the best indicators of intelligence. The ability to listen, ask insightful questions, provide concise responses and be energetic about a number of topics are all strong leadership qualities that are based upon intelligence exudes. Leading people to understand your points is another demonstration of intelligence. It is not always what you know but it is always how you express your knowledge that reflects your intelligence.


Leaders follow their own personal and professional code. When they waiver from these core principles, bad things happen. Good leaders develop these principles over time and through experience but every leader should begin by identifying their code of conduct and then subscribe to it. Without these core principles, you are merely sticking a finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. Lead through your code.


Leaders who act with integrity survive the test of time as do the institutions and organizations that they lead. There is an overall decay in the political systems of the world because of the erosion of this precious leadership quality. This is a quality that too few leaders talk about but which employees and followers always critique. An honourable leader with integrity can make honest mistakes or survive unexpected risk factors because the subscribers will rally to go the extra distance to correct the situation. We have all seen this. We have also seen the opposite effect.


Merriam Webster defines valour as; “Strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness: personal bravery.” Valour is a powerful word that the greatest leaders possess. In many cases, valour is acquired through experience. Valour emanates in self-confidence and is evident in body language, communication, direction and character. Followers and even adversaries respect valour in a leader. It is an empowering trait that is necessary to brave the new world.


Personal courage is not a lack of fear. Courage is the ability to act in the face of fear. Merriam Webster defines courage as: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Courage is most often the result of commitment and passion. If one asks a courageous war veteran why he or she did the things they do, they most often answer that, “It was their responsibility.” Effective leaders must have a strong sense of personal courage that eliminates doubt and allows the organization to move forward and overcome setbacks. With courage comes versatility.


“The quality or state of being humble” is one of an effective leader’s most empowering attributes. Effective leaders do not need to espouse their success. Others will do that. Great leaders never think the job is complete. After achieving one goal, they are off to meet the next challenge. Leaders realise that every accomplishment is one step in a long ladder of goals.

Written by Bob Bradley, founder of MD2MD.