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Here are the 8 proven characteristics of a leader (according to a 20-year study)

Can research tell us what are the top characteristics of a leader?

What makes up the true characteristics of a leader? It’s a question that everybody wants the answer to — especially when you consider that research from Gallup states that only one in 10 people actually have the natural talent to manage others. 

We like to think that if we can identify the tried and true recipe for great leadership, we’ll be well on your way to a successful team and a thriving company. 

But here’s the tricky part: There isn’t one straightforward answer to this age-old question. That’s because leadership means something different to everybody. 

Look at some of the most reputable and powerful business leaders — from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs — and you’ll probably have an easier time spotting differences than similarities. 

So, maybe there isn’t one default formula for building the perfect leader. However, there are plenty of motivations and mindsets that people in charge often have in common. 

That’s exactly what inspired Michelle Duval, Fingerprint for Success’ Founder and CEO, to launch a study to determine what attitudes and motivations distinguished entrepreneurs (and, as a result, great leaders) from the rest of the population. 

Do great leaders actually have anything in common? 

The 20-year study examined founders who started and exited businesses within five years for between $6 million and $1.2 billion, as well as those who profitably grew their business over 10 years or more. 

The goal of closely examining these groups was to identify any shared motivations. It’s important to note that these motivations aren’t the same things as strengths or weaknesses, but rather cognitive filters that leaders use when they approach the work in front of them. 

Did the study find any overlap between all of the founders and business owners it analyzed? You bet. As it turns out, there were some statistically significant differences between the attitudes of successful entrepreneurs and business owners and the rest of the population.

“There are definitely motivators that we see in common across all of the different leadership styles,” explains Annie Luu, Head of Asia and Global Expansion here at Fingerprint for Success, who has a long history of profiling leaders and founders herself.

What does it take to lead? 8 characteristics of a leader

So, now here’s the answer that you really want the answer to: What were those shared motivations that great leaders have in common? 

We connected with Luu for an enlightening conversation about the eight different characteristics of a good leader that were identified during these 20 years of research — including what those motivations are and why they really matter. 

Leaders have a high degree of initiation

  • The lowdown on initiation: Your level of energy for action, for starting and getting things going, and for thinking on your feet. 

Leaders are the ones who are managing teams, relentlessly pursuing goals, and offering guidance and directives. That means their natural inclination can’t be to stand back and observe — they need to know how to lead the charge and take action. 

“Leaders aren’t waiting for instruction,” explains Luu. “They’re initiating and leading the way. It means they can move really fast.” 

This also means that people in leadership positions can’t shy away from problems. Instead, they feel motivated to innovate solutions and tackle issues head on, even if their proposed fixes involve a lot of trial and error. 

“Your solutions may be terrible. They may be impractical and unwieldy,” explains an article for Kellogg Insight, a publication of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “But the very act of generating solutions announces to yourself and others that you are a person who wants to get things done.”

Leaders are focused on achievement

  • The lowdown on achievement: Your level of focus on achieving results, objectives, accomplishment, recognition, and rewards.

“If people are going to follow leaders, they want to know that they’ll do exactly what they say,” says Luu. 

That means that leaders need to be highly driven to achieve great results for their team and their company as a whole. They don’t set vague objectives or make empty promises. They chase down true, measurable success. 

This propensity for achievement can also trickle down to employees and create a highly-motivated, top-performing team. And even better? It can boost retention. One study found that achievement-driven people are 44% more likely to love and stay in their jobs. 

However, while that laser focus on outcomes is important, there’s one caveat to keep in mind: Leaders can’t become so tunnel-visioned on metrics and results that they forget about the actual people they’re leading. 

One survey of over 60,000 employees asked what traits make leaders great in the eyes of their employees, looking at two specific characteristics: results-focus and people-focus. 

Surprisingly, neither characteristic on its own led to consistently high-ranked leadership. Leaders who were zoned in on results were viewed as great by their subordinates 14% of the time, while the people-focused leaders were seen as great only 12% of the time.

Here’s where things get interesting: Leaders who were able to balance their approach and focus their attention equally on results and people were viewed favorably 72% of the time. “It’s the potent combination of the two that consistently makes leaders great,” writes Travis Bradberry in an article for Forbes.

Leaders prioritize reflection and patience

  • The lowdown on reflection and patience: Your level of patience to comfortably wait, pause, observe, or reflect without needing to take action.

With motivations like initiation and achievement ranking so highly in the research, it makes sense that leaders need to be willing to move fast. 

But, that doesn’t mean that they should never take a step back and re-evaluate. In fact, leaders who don’t balance out those dogged, goal-oriented tendencies with some reflection and patience run the risk of losing perspective entirely. 

“Leaders aren’t doing things for the sake of doing them,” explains Luu. “They’re always asking themselves, ‘How does this align with where we’re trying to go and what we’re trying to do?’”

Unfortunately, a whopping 78% of people don’t believe that their leaders have a clear direction for the organization. That’s when frustrations happen with managers who continue to emphasize goals and metrics, without any sort of context about the impact and importance of actually achieving those objectives. 

Put simply, leaders can’t get so focused on the end game that they get totally lost during the journey. The best leaders understand the importance of occasionally re-examining their efforts to ensure that their objectives still make a meaningful difference for the organization. If not? They’re willing to shift directions when necessary.

Leaders are both present and future-oriented

  • The lowdown on present: Your motivation to reference the present moment, the here and now in your work and in business.
  • The lowdown on future: Level of future orientation: long term thinking, dreaming about and hoping for the future.

It goes without saying that leaders need to keep a watchful eye on the future. In fact, 70% of workers in one survey selected “forward looking” as a key leadership competency. 

In order to trust the ones who are leading the charge, people need to feel as if their leaders have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening and that they can plan for contingencies and mitigate risks accordingly.

But, leaders can’t be so consumed with gazing into their crystal balls that they totally forget about the here and now. “Strong leaders need to have this combination of being really present and future-oriented,” Luu adds. 

“Because their role is to see what we are doing now and where we are going in terms of our future. They need to be able to plan ahead and look ahead. For example, will their industry be affected by AI, robotics, or automation?” 

Leaders blend affective and neutral communication

  • The lowdown on affective communication: Level of sensitivity and importance you place on tone of voice, gestures and other non-verbal expressions and communication.
  • The lowdown on neutral communication: Your level of sensitivity to focus in on specific words and their meaning during communication.

We’ve all heard that communication is key, and that’s especially true when it comes to leadership. That’s why it’s alarming that 91% of employees say that communication is a skill that their leaders lack. 

Communicating well isn’t just about doling out directives and reprimands. Leaders need to strike a balance between affective and neutral communication.

“Affective communication is about emotional intelligence and being able to read nonverbal cues, and then neutral communication is also about the meaning of the words during communication,” says Luu. 

That mention of emotional intelligence is noteworthy, as it’s one of the most critical characteristics of a leader. “Emotional intelligence is super important. Leaders need to be able to read people — their team members, their stakeholders, and their clients,” Luu adds.  

Not only does this help them interact more respectfully and effectively, but being in tune with the emotions and perceptions of their team members can also boost the performance of the entire company. 

“Emotional intelligence increases corporate performance for a number of reasons. But perhaps the most important is the ability of managers and leaders to inspire discretionary effort — the extent to which employees and team members go above and beyond the call of duty,” writes Laura Wilcox, Director of Management Programs at Harvard Extension School. 

“Individuals are much more inclined to go the extra mile when asked by an empathetic person they respect and admire. Although discretionary effort isn’t endless, managers with low emotional intelligence will have much less to draw on. If an organization has a cadre of emotionally intelligent leaders, such discretionary efforts multiply.”

Leaders can act automatically

  • The lowdown on automatic: Your level of comfort to trust or draw a conclusion after just partial or little exposure to something.

Nothing slows down progress more than a hesitant or wavering leader — somebody who needs to comb through every detail or explore every last option before deciding how to move forward.

This is why strong leaders are able to act automatically. “These people don’t need a lot of information and are able to jump right in,” explains Luu. 

In short, they place a lot of weight in their gut reactions. They don’t fall victim to analysis paralysis, and instead get the information they need, do a quick gut check with themselves, and make a prompt decision about what next steps should be taken.

While it might seem like a surefire way to make a brash or irrational decision, that’s actually not the case. 

One study backs this up with a pretty simple premise: It asked participants to choose a piece of art to hang in their homes. Half of the group was instructed to think rationally, while the other half were told to go with their gut instinct. The ones who acted on their feelings ended up being happier with their selection. 

So, in short, effective leaders understand that trusting their first impressions might just lead to a stronger decision — and ultimately a better outcome. 

Leaders have high internal reference

  • The lowdown on internal reference: Level of motivation for using your own criteria to form opinions and to make business decisions.

Speaking of making decisions, leaders often have a lot of people chirping in their ears. From employees to board members to stakeholders and everybody in between, they’re on the receiving end of a lot of opinions — and those opinions don’t always match up.

That’s where the importance of internal reference comes into play. 

“Those who are low on internal reference may feel a lot of anxiety if, for example, they were fundraising and all of their board members said different things about how much to raise,” Luu explains. “If they didn’t have high internal reference, they wouldn’t be able to decide at all.”

Decisions can become hairy and complex. In fact, one study of more than 2,700 leaders found that 57% of newly-appointed executives said that decisions were more complicated and difficult than they expected.

Fortunately, leaders who are able to look inwardly will have a much easier time making choices that they feel confident in — and their teams are far more likely to feel confident in them too. 

Leaders balance power and affiliation 

  • The lowdown on power: Level of motivation to be the person in charge, in a position to influence and have control of resources, people and things.
  • The lowdown on affiliation: Level of energy for bonding, belonging and building personal relationships at work.

There are those leaders who use an iron fist. They inspire action through firm directions and reprimands. And then there are those who take the opposite approach and lead through strong bonding and belonging. To them, leadership is all about relationships.

As it turns out, the best leaders fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. “Leaders love to be in charge,” says Luu. “They love to have influence over things.” 

But, they balance it out with a high degree of care and compassion for the people who report to them. “They truly want to know the people they work with,” Luu adds. “They’re not just there to work and make money.” 

This well-rounded approach matters to employees too. While workers want a leader who elicits a certain degree of respect, they also want to feel as if their manager is invested in them personally. In fact, about one quarter of respondents in one survey wished their bosses would ask about their lives outside of work. 

There’s no perfect formula for leadership, but these motivations lay the foundation for developing the characteristics of a leader.

Everybody wants to know what are the characteristics of a leader. What mold do they need to fit into in order to successfully inspire a team and guarantee success?

It’s a worthy (and understandable) question, but leadership has a lot of gray areas — things aren’t always so black and white. 

Here’s the good news: While leadership styles can certainly run the gamut, our extensive research into successful founders and entrepreneurs proves that there are several motivations and characteristics that leaders have in common.

Here's the even better news: Natural-born leaders might be few and far between, but the commitment to learning and growth is the most critical component for improving your leadership abilities. 

So don't worry if you don't have every characteristic of a leader that we've discussed. If you get excited by any of the motivations above, with awareness and coaching, you might just be able to lay claim to the coveted title of leader.

Curious to know if you possess any (or all) of these motivations of great leaders? Get started for free with Fingerprint for Success.

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