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5 characteristics of a good leader

March 03, 2023
Business woman discusses business strategy with team.

What makes a good leader? Many people can easily recall their favorite bosses, team captains, community organizers and other individuals they've been motivated to work with or follow. What were the most important qualities they demonstrated? Being a good leader is about a lot more than being put in charge–it requires a level of self-awareness, confidence, strategic thinking and an ability to make a positive impact with whatever resources they have.

Some people are naturally strong leaders while others need to spend time working to develop leadership skills. In either case it's helpful to study essential leadership qualities in order to improve your ability to motivate team members, meet organizational goals and create a positive work environment. Although leadership skills are required in all sorts of settings, for this blog we'll focus on the importance of effective leadership to make a positive impact on business goals, employees and an entire organization.

Top 5 characteristics of successful leaders


Much like relationships, one of the most important tenets of good leadership is effective communication. It might seem simple but when you're already a busy manager or executive, it can be easy to forget that there are other people who need to know what you're up to and how the outcomes might affect them. Communication is an innate part of transparency and honesty–both of which are key ethical principles for business leaders. And as former PepsiCo CEO and respected business leader, Indra Nooyi, says, “You cannot over-invest in communication skills — written and oral skills. If you cannot simplify a message and communicate it compellingly, believe me, you cannot get the masses to follow you.”1 Former journalist and author of The Bezos Blueprint, Carmine Gallo, cites the following as some of the most common communication tactics he's observed used by great leaders:1

  • Use short words to talk about hard things
  • Reinforce key concepts with metaphors
  • Humanize data to create value
  • Use your mission to align disparate teams

Put these good communication skills to work and see your employees and organization bloom.

Decision Making

Although it's a trait that is easily overlooked: good leaders are good decision-makers. We mostly make decisions based off the unconscious processes of recognizing patterns and emotional tagging, but these can be distorted by self-interest, emotional attachments, or misleading memories. For example, a manager choosing one employee's idea over another's because they have a preference for one team member, or, because they thought an idea hadn't worked in the past.2 A Harvard Business Review study called "Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions," explains that the brain sometimes doesn't pick up on these errors because so much of decision-making process is done subconsciously. "This makes it hard to check the data and logic we use when we make a decision." The article recommends a few safeguards for making good decisions for successful organizations:2

  • Incorporate fresh experience or analysis: Counteract biases by pulling in new ideas from other experts or fresh information on a topic to help rethink the problem.
  • Introduce debate and challenge: A good leader should be able to defend their decision to a "devil's advocate." When faced with tough decisions, a leader should bring in someone they respect to call out their biases and be objective in the situation.
  • Impose stronger governance: A final safeguard is to have a higher level of supervision to ratify a decision. Good leadership teams often have executive boards to help weigh the outcomes and consequences of decisions.


Integrity is one of the leadership qualities that's very hard to learn. Instead, it's demonstrated through behavior and guided by values. Strong leaders will display their integrity through supporting their teams in tough times, taking responsibility for issues under their purview and helping others without expecting something in return. True leaders "walk their talk" and follow their core beliefs when tested.


Deemed by Forbes as one of the most important leadership qualities, empathy can be a critical part of motivating employees. According to a study by Catalyst, "When people reported their leaders were empathetic, they were more likely to report they were able to be innovative—61% of employees compared to only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders."3 Empathetic leaders ask "If I was in this person's shoes, how would I feel?" when making decisions or broaching difficult topics with their employees. When leaders demonstrate empathy, they're demonstrating respect for their coworkers and team members which is core to success.


Effective leaders know that trust is key. A Harvard Business Review study showed that, some trust behaviors like showing vulnerability through asking for help can actually stimulate oxytocin production.4 Additionally, compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.4 Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

How the top leadership qualities benefit an organization

As Gallo states, "While some teams follow leaders who are granted power through sheer title alone, the most successful teams follow leaders because they are inspired to do so."1 Employees who just follow someone because they're put in charge aren't necessarily ones who are very engaged or motivated to make a difference. Good leaders will naturally drive higher performance from their team members as they're motivated to bring their best to the organization. For example, in our blog 'How to motivate employees for greater company success,' we share several statistics that demonstrate the importance of engaged and motivated employees:5,6

  • 23% increase in profitability for teams with higher employee engagement
  • 18% increase in productivity at organizations that have high employee engagement
  • 81% decrease in absenteeism at organizations where employee morale is higher
  • Lower rates of turnover for both high and low turnover organizations
  • 10% increase in customer loyalty and engagement when employee engagement is higher

Enhance your leadership skills by learning from great leaders

Earn your online Master in Management (MiM) from Marquette University to become an effective leader of organizations and role model for your direct reports. The online MiM is made for leaders who understand that one of the best ways to motivate employees and shape an organization is to connect on a personal level. Our faculty of experts have studied all aspects of what makes for a successful leader and strong organization. Others have worked under top business leaders or are still consulting for them today and are able to bring their experience directly to the classroom. Learn more about the online MiM and what it can do for your career by scheduling a call with an Admissions Advisor.