What makes for a great leader?

Every organization should be a leader – a leader of a cause and a leader of a community of supporters for that cause. Leadership is the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of a vision or a set of goals, and mission-driven organizations need to successfully bring people together to accomplish long-term impact.

But what makes for a good leader? Let’s take a look at what the research says about the traits and behaviors of individual leaders and then apply it to organizations.

Personality traits

When looking at the characteristics of leaders, there are certain personality traits that are important for their emergence and effectiveness. Extraversion is probably the most important trait, though it’s more strongly related to how leaders emerge than their effectiveness. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: extraverts enjoy talking to others, are comfortable with groups of people, and know how to assert themselves (though being too assertive can make a leader less effective). Conversely, introverts prefer to be alone and don’t like being in front of a crowd, which might make it difficult to attract, retain, and bring together followers.

Conscientiousness (self-discipline and responsibility) and openness (to new ideas and experiences) also show strong relationships to effective leadership. Leaders who are disciplined and keep commitments (conscientious) and who are creative and flexible (open) are more likely to be successful leaders.

Emotional intelligence (EI) – the ability to recognize and regulate emotions – is also an important trait. Someone may have a great vision, excellent training, fantastic ideas, and a highly analytical mind and still not make a great leader without EI. This is because a core component of EI is empathy – being sensitive to others’ needs and feelings. A leader who effectively displays and manages emotions will find it easier to connect with and influence the emotions of followers.

Charismatic leadership

Charismatic leaders are those to whom followers attribute heroic or extraordinary leadership abilities based on their behaviors. (Fun fact: the word charisma is from the Greek for “gift.”) There are four key characteristics of charismatic leaders:

  1. An articulated vision. They express a better future as an idealized goal, and they are able to state the importance of the vision in terms that others understand.
  2. Personal risk. They are willing to put themselves out there, incur high costs, and sacrifice themselves to achieve the vision.
  3. Sensitivity to followers’ needs. They are perceptive of others’ qualities and responsive to their needs and feelings.
  4. Unconventional behavior. They do things that are considered novel or even contrary to social norms.

Charismatic leaders can gather followers by presenting a clear and compelling vision, standing by their values, and being attuned to the needs and feelings of others. Of course, there are charismatic leaders who aren’t effective – the ones who are so larger than life that they pursue their own personal agendas – and the effectiveness of a charismatic leader can depend on the context and the vision itself. (After all, Hitler was a charismatic leader who convinced others to pursue a disastrous vision…)

Transformational leadership

There’s a whole body of research dedicated to differentiating between transactional leaders – those who guide followers towards goals by clarifying roles, tasks, and rewards – and transformational leaders – those who inspire followers to transcend their self-interests for the good of the organization.

It is important to note that these two modes of leadership are not in conflict. Transformational leadership builds on transactional leadership, producing levels of effort and performance beyond what transactional leadership can do.

So what characterizes transformational leaders? How do leaders get their followers to go above and beyond for the cause? There are four key qualities:

  1. Individualized consideration. They give personal attention to each follower and treats them individually.
  2. Intellectual stimulation. They promote intelligence, rational thinking, and careful problem solving.
  3. Inspirational motivation. They set high expectations, use metaphors to focus others’ efforts, and express important values in simple ways.
  4. Idealized influence. They provide a sense of purpose, instill pride, gain respect, and build trust.

Like charismatic leaders, transformational leaders present a clear vision, but they also work to build consensus, increase follower self-efficacy (that “can do” spirit), and engage followers in taking on the responsibility of achieving the mission. Organizations with transformational leaders have more decentralized management and give followers a greater sense of autonomy.

Organizational Leadership

So what can organizations learn from all this? How can an organization as a whole serve as an effective leader that rallies support for its cause and its work? Since a list of fours seems to be the theme in this post, here’s another:

  1. Present a clear vision and purpose. In your communications work, be sure to articulate your idealized version of the world and how it’s better than the current situation. Explain why it’s important, what the benefits are, and what it means for your audiences and what they care about.
  2. Be sensitive to your audiences. Whether it’s your constituents, your partners, your funders, your donors, or your supporters, always be empathetic, understanding, responsive, and open-minded. Keep the lines of communication open, seek out feedback, ask what you can do for others, give personal attention, and make time for people. Trusting relationships are how we get things done, but they must be built and maintained with compassion and authenticity.
  3. Set a good example. There’s truth in the adage, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” As a leader in the field, you should stand by your values, stay true to your word, and follow through on your promises and commitments. You should also be grounded, reasonable, rational, evidence-based, and level-headed – qualities that earn respect from people on all sides of an issue.
  4. Instill greatness. If you want people to follow you, it’s not enough to just show them the path towards your vision. You want to be transformational and inspire others to walk that path. Stay positive about the road ahead so people believe change can happen, but also be realistic about the challenges. Empower others to take action by talking about their role in creating change and giving them opportunities to do something concrete. Make your supporters feel connected and involved in the organization, and let them take some responsibility for the organization’s progress. Followers want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, something important and meaningful.

Organizations must connect with others and bring them together for a common goal. Just as individual leaders do, organizations must exhibit the right traits and behaviors to rally support and earn the respect, trust, and admiration of others. If you want your organization to succeed, invest in becoming a leading organization – one that inspires others to join your cause and helps you in achieving your mission.


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