Most of us recognize leadership when we see it, but it’s not always easy to define. Executive coach Dr. Sunnie Giles of Quantum Leadership Group asked 195 leaders in 15 countries representing a variety of organizations what qualities make for excellence in leadership. Out of a list of 74 leadership competencies, survey participants were asked to choose the 15 most important ones.

The elements of leadership can be grouped into a handful of key categories.

Giles was able to group favorite leadership competencies into five major themes that can be useful for leaders, leadership development programs, and anyone who wants to maximize their leadership potential. One common thread woven throughout the top competencies is that improving them requires going against basic human nature. It’s like fighting entropy, but it’s worth the effort. Here are the top five leadership themes.

Strong Ethics and Morals

Without a strong moral compass, effective leadership is impossible. And the appearance of strong ethics and morals isn’t enough: these qualities must be genuine. Two-thirds of survey participants selected strong ethics and morals as one of the most important attributes of effective leaders. The reason these attributes are so important have to do with creating an environment of trust. Team members can feel secure that they will be treated with fairness and that everyone will play by the same rules, including their leaders. Within this safe space, innovation, creativity, and ambition thrive.

Provision of Clear Goals and Direction without Micromanaging

Teammates want to know where they’re going and the general route to take. But they also want to be able to organize their time and make their own progress without being micromanaged. Leaders are expected to demonstrate competence, but they can’t do everything themselves. Decisions should be made by those close to the action. Research has borne out the importance of teams being empowered rather than having to always wait on instruction for their every move. Not only are empowered teams more effective, they experience more job satisfaction and feel more committed to their organization.

Lack of Fear of Learning and Openness to Changing Viewpoints

Brittle Inflexibility is incompatible with good leadership.

Being flexible enough to change opinions and open to a certain degree of trial and error encourages learning and innovation. On the other hand, the leader who is incapable of being moved from his or her opinions no matter what is more likely to quash learning and innovation. It’s not easy to admit we’re wrong, but tunnel vision benefits no one. When a leader’s opinions become increasingly inflexible in the face of contradictory evidence, learning and moving forward become nearly impossible. Teammates are open to learning and changing when leaders are open to the same.

Fostering of Growth in All Team Members

While strong leaders are committed to their own personal growth and learning, they want all team members to fulfill their potential and are willing to help them along. What’s more, they’re aware that this is how the next generation of leaders will emerge. Leaders who are committed to team members’ growth not only receive loyalty and gratitude, they can expect higher work quality across the board. Managing people through intimidation may retain order for the short term, but the effects on morale and work quality negate any value of this technique.

Creation of Sense of Cohesiveness and Belonging

A sense of belonging and importance to the overall team encourages team cohesiveness, and leaders who communicate frequently and candidly make the most of this phenomenon, laying a sturdy foundation for the sense of community that takes a team from good to great. Humans are social and crave a sense of belonging, probably as a holdover from the days when survival itself depended on community. When people feel safe and valued, they’re better prepared to make maximum use of higher brain functions and develop new insights and innovations.

Effective leadership begins with a strong moral and ethical sense, and embodies confidence and trust in team members, as well as a sense of belonging. When team members feel empowered to make a difference, rather than worried about being micromanaged, they’re freer to imagine, innovate, and gain new insights. All team members, regardless of role, must be valued by team leadership and must be shown appreciation if they are to continue giving it their best effort. Being a strong team leader has far less to do with coercion and fear and more to do with inspiration and confidence.

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