No, that title isn’t a typo. Instead of trying to summarize the characteristics of great leaders in bite-sized, cookie-cutter, easy-to-swallow morsels, we need to face the truth: great leadership isn’t simplistic, easy, or predictable. In fact, if you were to study great leaders, you’d find that what makes each one great is unique. There are no top characteristics.

To truly discover the characteristics of great leaders, we first need to let go of the idea that there are any. Then, we need to flip the script and ask a different question: what characteristics make you a great leader?

Leadership From the Inside-Out

When I facilitate leadership training, I sometimes do an activity in which the participants make a list of characteristics of great leaders. Inevitably, certain traits come up each time such as honesty, passion, transparency, and integrity. What is interesting, however, is that the traits that matter most to each person are unique. In other words, the top 2-3 traits for me are seldom the top 2-3 traits for anyone else. This is true for each of us.

This presents an interesting paradox: in order to be a great leader, the only characteristics that matter are the ones that matter to you. The characteristics that inspire you, that you want to emulate, that make you feel alive, that give you a sense of meaning and purpose – these are the characteristics that will make you a great leader. You can read all the top ten lists you want about what makes a great leader but, if they’re not in your top ten, you’ll just go through the motions and try to be someone you’re not. You’ll do what you think you should do instead of being who you are. And, if you think about the leaders in your life, which ones would you be more likely to follow – the ones who do what they think they should do, or the ones who are themselves?

This presents another paradox: being a great leader means being yourself. Nothing more, nothing less. In order to be yourself, however, you need to start by defining leadership from the inside-out.

Discovering What Makes You a Great Leader

OK, so you got me. There are a few characteristics of what it means to be a great leader. Being yourself, discovering what characteristics matter to you, and recognizing what makes you great are some we’ve seen so far. However, these characteristics are hard to define. We need to look within ourselves to find the answers.

When we identify our unique strengths, gifts, and purpose, we find our voice. When we know what we value, what changes we want to see, what brings meaning to our lives, we take action to make it a reality. When we do that, people will want to follow us. We create our own personal, unique brand of leadership. Consider some examples:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. used his words, his passion, and his spirituality to create significant social change. His speeches are some of the most quoted amongst any leader.
  • Mahatma Gandhi was committed to leading by example, using non-violent civil disobedience as his primary tactic. When people speak of using non-violent means of protest, Gandhi is usually at the top of the list.
  • Jesus used fierce love and compassion to combat social injustice and bring people towards peace. To this day, people try to emulate his commitment to service and forgiveness.

Sure, each of these three leaders has characteristics in common. However, the ones they are most remembered for – the ones that most stand out – are different. Like fingerprints, they are one-of-a-kind. It is these unique characteristics that made them great leaders. These leaders didn’t read any top ten lists. They looked within to figure out who they were. Then, they acted in alignment with that knowledge.

How to Be A Great Leader

As we’ve seen, there are no easy answers about what makes a great leader. There is only discovering what will make you a great leader. This takes time, commitment, and self-reflection. You will need to be patient, persistent, and proactive. In time, you’ll discover your own unique leadership brand. The good news is that you can start right away by answering some questions:

  • What is your mission in life? At work? At home?
  • What qualities in other people do you most want to emulate?
  • What changes do you want to see in the world? In your organization? In your community?
  • What impact would you need to have each day to sleep peacefully each night?
  • What are your unique strengths, talents, and gifts?

You can also use the two questions that leaders should ask. Dialogue with family, friends, and colleagues. Journal. Spend time in nature. Go for walks. Sit silently. In time, the answers will come. When they do, act on them. Then, you’ll truly know what the top characteristics of a great leader really are. When you do, please share!