What Defines a Leader?

I have been having a number of discussions of late on the topic of leadership which has made me reflect on some of the basics. What is it that defines a Leader today?

Being a good leader is about more than being a manager. It has nothing to do with your seniority level, your title, or being “blessed” with a leadership personality. Leadership is all about focusing on success, with each person in your company or team inspired by your example and willing to follow your lead.

Some people may appear to be born leaders, but the truth is that it can be learned. Attitude is often everything. If you think you can, you will. If you show you care about others, they will care about you and their job, or the task at hand.

These days there are all sorts of leaders, from the heads of corporations to community and church groups to online, with “thought leaders” in various niches and industries, and “trend leaders” who are seen to be worth paying attention to. No one had ever heard of Arianna Huffington until she launched her blog, and even then, it took her some time to become a thought leader to the extent that she was able to sell her company AND be offered a C-level position within it by the new owners.

As you can see, a leader possesses certain qualities which enable them to lead, such as influence and effectiveness. They may lead alone, or be part of a group, with the responsibility for making decisions on behalf of others. Leaders provide guidance and direction. It is not just about command, control and power, but effectiveness and persuasiveness as well.

Whether you think that leaders are born or made, or a bit of both, there are several characteristics that many powerful leaders tend to have in common, and which seem to be lacking in those who are less effective leaders. These characteristics include:

  • Hard-working
  • Goal-oriented
  • Visionary
  • Creative
  • Proactive, not reactive
  • Personable
  • Motivating
  • Laser focused
  • Willing and able to see the whole picture
  • Resilient
  • Confident
  • Self-aware
  • Good communication skills
  • Responsible
  • Reliable
  • Honest
  • Able to transform stress into success

I will take a look at each of these below.


  • Many top leaders have been described as tireless, always striving to achieve their goals. It is probably no coincidence that many of them do not even own a television. They work towards their own vision instead, using a variety of strategies, tactics and innovations. Many seem to need little sleep as well, and are always alert and full of ideas.


  • Are you the kind of person who likes to get things done? Do people come to you and ask you to do something for them and know you will follow through? Not everyone is goal-oriented, but those who are may end up being effective leaders.


  • Good leaders do not just look at how things are, but also how they could be. They seek to improve things, usually for the benefit of more people than just themselves. They are constantly creating based on their vision or the potential of what they are trying to create or transform. They will use a variety of strategies and tactics to make their vision a reality.


  • Good leaders tend to be very creative or even innovative people who “think outside the box” and are able to come up with a variety of ideas and solutions which no one else has thought of. They lead by example and do not follow others slavishly.

Proactive not Reactive

  • Good leaders make things happen. They are the “movers and shakers” in their area of expertise. They tend to be known in their industry as the kind of person who is always at least a few steps ahead of everyone else. Again, they do not follow others slavishly; in fact, many people want to imitate them.


  • A leader tends to be a people person – someone who derives lots of energy from being around people and working with their team or for them. Such extroverted personalities make great leaders, but introverts are not barred from leadership either. You can have a love for people and still be introverted. In this case, you just respond differently to interacting with others, and would be seen as a good listener rather than a great talker.


  • Good leaders know how to motivate, even when (or especially when) times are tough. They can often get the best out of people who might not even think themselves capable of such great achievements.

Laser Focused

  • A good leader has a clear vision and purpose and does not allow himself or herself to be distracted or diverted away from that purpose. Think of the difference between a light bulb and a laser. Both use beams of light, but the bulb scatters the beams of light in every direction. A laser uses the beams of light with such focused concentration that they can literally cut through solid substances.

Willing and Able to See the Whole Picture

  • A leader has laser-like focus to try to accomplish their goals, but the best leaders will take both a focused and a broad view that encompasses a wide variety of factors which can contribute to their success, or hold them back from it.


  • Resilience means bouncing back even when things go wrong. Good leaders aren’t daunted; they learn from what’s happened and press on.


  • A belief in himself/herself can sometimes be the only thing that sustains a leader through his/her climb to the top, and the often slippery slope he or she will have to live on once they get there. Even if a leader is not truly confident, they can often “fake it ’til they make it” and convey a sense of command and authority despite being faced with great difficulties.


  • Leaders tend to be self-aware with reference to their weaknesses and strengths, but not to the point of letting either one rule them.

Good Communication Skills

  • True leaders are able to communicate their vision and get people to participate in it. They do their best to “keep people on the same page” within their company or team, while also retaining control of privileged information.


  • Good leaders should not shy away from responsibility. If they take on a task, they should follow it through to its logical conclusion. If they make a mistake, they should admit it and not let someone else take the blame or try to cover it up.


  • Good leaders are reliable and follow through with all of the work assigned to them. They do not make excuses, but deliver what is expected of them on time.


  • Leaders in history have possessed this characteristic in varying degrees, but on the whole, they should not be corrupt, greedy or adopt a leadership role simply for their own benefit. If they give their word, they should keep it if it is at all possible.

Able to Transform Stress into Success

  • Leaders feel stress just like anyone else. It is a question of what they do with that stress. For many people, it is the fight or flight response. Either they will make a stand and work hard to deal with the situation, or they will run from it and try to pretend it doesn’t exist. A good leader will make a stand.

In the next post in this short series I will take a look at four leadership styles, and the pros and cons of each.

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