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Characteristics of a good leader

During our 45 years of working with managers in thousands of client companies, Fortune has identified a number of key leadership qualities that effective managers in successful teams and organisations share. Note that we're talking about the characteristics of a good leader; these are personal traits that are critical in determining a team leader's effectiveness, but should not be confused with the role or function that a manager must fulfill as part of their job.

Good leaders have emotional maturity

Emotionally immature leaders behave as if they must have the answer to every situation, and that it isn't okay to not have the answer. However, emotionally mature leaders understand that not only is it impossible to know everything about everything, but they don't need to. In fact, they don't even need to be the smartest person in the room! By accepting this fact, you can put your ego aside and focus on creating a well-rounded team that will excel in any situation.

Further than being able to acknowledge what you don't know, emotional maturity requires that you embrace the fact that there are some things you don't even know that you don't know. Next time one of your direct reports tries to 'delegate' one of their problem issues to you by asking how they should handle it, say: "I don't know, what do you think? How do you feel we should handle it?" and help them find a solution they can own.

Good leaders are financially stable

Too often during our interaction with clients we find that ineffective leaders don't have their own personal finances in order. Although on first blush it may not be apparent how this can impact a leader's ability to lead their team, personal financial issues have a way of becoming extremely stressful and time consuming, and negatively impact decision-making ability. It becomes infinitely more difficult to make rational, well-reasoned management decisions when a creditor is breathing down your neck or you don't know how you're going to make your next mortgage payment.

Potentially worse than impacting decision-making abilities, leaders who do not have financial stability are generally unsettled and demonstrate a poor attitude, which in turn impacts staff and poisons morale.

Good leaders have technical knowledge

As we've said, good leaders have emotional maturity so they can confidently surround themselves with others who will often know more than they do. However, this doesn't mean leaders don't need a good level of technical knowledge. A good team leader has at least a proficient knowledge of each area of their work so they can properly communicate their objectives and ideas with people, and tease out problem issues.

Good leaders are passionate about the organisation

Any leader can be devoted to the organisation, but the important distinction here is that a good leader shows that devotion with a passion. Internalising it does not help anyone but themselves; instead, leaders set an example to their people – through words and actions – that the organisation (and senior management) requires their respect.

Crucially, a good leader boosts information coming from senior management. Rather than filtering the signal that comes from senior management, they step it up and intensify it. When they do this, they reinforce that communication from leadership is important.

However all of this is moot if the leader isn't truly devoted to the organisation and is just giving it lip service. Because even if they do and say all the right things, if it's not authentic, they won't be communicating the right things. And that's what really matters.

Good leaders exercise creativity

Creativity is often defined as the ability to bring something new or different into existence. Like many things in life, exercising creativity is easier to talk about than it is to do. As a foundation, let’s differentiate management and leadership. Effective management is about the smooth operation of a well-defined unit, in essence the efficient maintenance of the status quo so as a result the business functions like clockwork. Leadership on the other hand requires going beyond the status quo, and through a process of innovation and change, developing new ways of creating value for customers. Why? Because creating and delivering value to customers is the reason the business exists!
As business demands and complexity increase, leaders must have the ability to continuously deliver this value to customers and in the process, ensure they’re not consumed by the inevitable roadblocks. When leaders allow themselves to be derailed by roadblocks, it kills their creativity. Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant provides the best definition of creativity in business that we know of, namely: “Having the ability to understand the forces or conditions impacting upon us and then being able to utilise those forces as a means of reaching our objectives”. Managers who exercise creativity avoid getting in conflict with the environment or conditions over which they have no control so they can maintain focus on their objectives.

Good leaders exercise good judgment

Essential to having good judgment as a leader is to have a broad view in relation to the organisation. In other words, an effective leader must understand how all parts of the company are interconnected and what the business implications will be when they make a decision or a change. They achieve this by having 'well-ordered priorities'.

For example, if an employee requests a pay rise or six weeks holiday because they've been working hard, a good leader will assess that decision based on their priorities. We can't tell you what your priorities should be but for one manager they may be: Firstly, how will this decision affect service to customers? Secondly, how will it affect sales? Thirdly, how will it impact the management of our finances? And finally, how will it influence the engagement or well-being of my staff? Based on priorities such as these a manager can balance their decision making, and make better judgments. 

Good leaders have empathy

Empathy is a crucial quality to being an effective leader because it has such a profound impact on how well you can communicate. That's because communication does not begin with being understood but with understanding the other person. Without that understanding, it's a one-way street and the receiver of the communication is going to mentally shut down. But when a leader puts in the effort to understand their team members, work becomes more collaborative and the manager creates a climate or environment in which natural motivation goes through the roof.

Good leaders are great communicators

Being a great communicator is a much more holistic approach than the common perception, and requires a lot of work and practice. It starts with empathy, as described above. It also requires being clear about the purpose of your communication: What outcome do you want? What do you want your employee(s) to do? And it requires that you listen to your team members and understand the difference between what they say and what they mean. This requires a lot more skill than is apparent, because a lot of factors go into what someone says. For example, if they're in an environment in which they feel comfortable, they'll be much more open and honest than if they're uncomfortable.

People who can bring together most of these leadership qualities will generally be very effective leaders. But that can be rare; we can always improve on any or all of these.

Practical Sales Management and Leadership is a modular, cloud-based, training system designed to help sales leadership teams grow their ability to performance manage the sales force.  Preview a module from the training system here