50 traits I look for in a leader

My friend Tom Moradpour invited me to participate in a new blog community called #usblogs, an offshoot of #usguys on Twitter. The topic for this weekend is 21st century leadership.

I wanted to write a post about how I think of leadership in the 21st century, but then I got to thinking about a person who, to me, embodies the traits I would most want to see in a leader of this century.

I couldn’t really think of any one person.

So then I asked myself, “How do you define a leader?”

I came up with these 50 traits – I’m sure you could add plenty yourself.

1. A leader is willing to sacrifice themselves, not just others. Frederick Douglass once said that John Brown was a far more passionate proponent for abolition. Douglass lived for the slave. Brown died for the slave.

2. A leader is in touch with those he or she is leading and can therefore anticipate what will be needed next.

3. A leader brings positivity, like sunshine, to a room. It’s more than charisma – it’s charisma backed by a confidence that things will get better.

4. A leader does not acknowledge enemies, but rather accepts that some people are challenges.

5. A leader knows when to step back and strengthen him or herself.

6. A leader knows how to prioritize.

7. A leader is organized so that organization can be handed off to others.

8. A leader shows bravery, which means sometimes admitting to being a little scared.

9. A leader is always accessible.

10. A leader never forgets what it was to be led.

11. A leader accepts blame more than recognition.

12. A leader knows who the strongest links in the chain are, and it’s seldom the leader him or herself.

13. A leader is color-blind, blind to gender, blind to ethnicity, but respectful of all.

14. A leader knows when to laugh and when to cry.

15. A leader will sometimes follow if the way is unfamiliar.

16. A leader will create other leaders.

17. A leader sees the trees and the forest, and that little twig sticking up in the corner.

18. A leader has a well of kindness that never runs dry.

19. A leader will pull but never push.

20. A leader will balance criticism with praise.

21. A leader will not compromise those who follow by putting them in an untenable position.

22. A leader will balance when to inform and when to hold back.

23. A leader will not baby the people who follow.

24. A leader knows that no victory resides just with them.

25. A leader is not a leader if there is no one to lead.

26. A leader knows all of the rules and knows when it is necessary to break them.

27. A leader knows how to pay homage to those who went before.

28. A leader knows how to be humble without losing gratitude.

29. A leader’s hair will go grey from worry.

30. A leader’s greatest fear is to lose a comrade, not him or herself.

31. A leader knows how to create relationships within and without.

32. A leader will not stand for in-fighting and knows how to make it stop.

33. A leader knows how to make you follow before you realize you are walking.

34. A leader is a wall that will not crumble, but a wall that affords a vantage point for seeing what is coming.

35. A leader is an ambassador.

36. A leader will give more than receive.

37. A leader will never feel that the task of proving oneself is complete.

38. A leader will never stop learning.

39. A leader will admit that someone has strengths that he or she does not have.

40. A leader is not afraid to learn from the competition.

41. A leader knows when it is time to exit.

42. A leader knows when it is necessary to take charge.

43. A leader does not complain about the burden of leadership.

44. A leader is cognizant that some may be jealous and is respectful of that perception, though it does not defeat him or her.

45. A leader knows you cannot please everyone.

46. A leader does not ask anyone to do something he or she would not do.

47. A leader does not turn up the nose at anyone, regardless of the circumstances.

48. A leader knows that when you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.

49. A leader earns respect but does not ask for it.

50. A leader will probably not always recognize themselves as leaders.

So those are my 50 traits. I can think of leaders who embody several of these, but not really one person who embodies all. I’d love to hear how you define the 21st century leader, or who you think of as the ideal 21st century leader!

Image by Debbie Wogen. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/dwogen

Todd Jordan
Todd Jordan

Fun read and some great points!
Be hard to follow up on that. Ha.

It's a list I should keep close at hand for sure. Often when leading, we forget we're leading and the responsibility of it.


Paula Lee Bright
Paula Lee Bright

Margie, you are nothing if not thorough! I would want you on my advertising team ANY DAY! I'd know that everything was going to be attended to, and done well. WOW!

If I'd thought a thousand and seven years, I'd have never come up with all those. But unlike Dan, I think you're right! Would I get all 50? Probably not. But I do think I'd aim higher than three. ;)

Amazing. You continue to amaze me. As you know by now, I will be back!

Kenny Rose
Kenny Rose

Well done Margie

A Leaders list for sure. :)

Gabriella O'Rourke
Gabriella O'Rourke

I loved this list Margie. Like others have said, it may be a bit aspirational but there are some great traits to aim for in and amongst these. For me, as a mother and (I hope) a 21st Century leader, the one that resonates most with me is: A leader knows when to step back and strengthen him or herself. You cannot have others believe in you and commit to your approach unless you take time to recharge and believe in yourself.
Great Post - really enjoyed it!

Linda Reed Friedman
Linda Reed Friedman

Great Post! I really appreciate your identifying more than the usually 10 top traits.. good job!

Jennifer Sertl
Jennifer Sertl

I have always enjoyed The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership -- a list of thirty based on Inspiring a Shared Vison/Modeling the Way/Challenging the Status Quo/Encouraging the Heart/Enabling Others to Act.
Also in my own work I foster transleadership which requires people to transcend their own leadership paradigm to create macro-value and there whole bunch I could say about that.

What I like best abput your post is the invitation for people to be reflective in what does leadership mean? And how can each person better model leadership regarding of the model--it is our actions that truly define our beliefs.

patricia Wilson
patricia Wilson

That is a long list! A lot to work toward! Thanks for sharing.


This is a rather good list. I thought you had missed one of the most important traits, but it was just worded a little differently - Number 10. In my own words, a good leader must be a good follower.

We (the Army) have a couple of different ways to encapsulate what a leader should be. One of which is the concept of BE, KNOW, DO:

Be - Be what a leader is supposed to be (E.g. - most of the things on your list)

Know - Know your job and your responsibilities as a leader of others in any situation

Do - Do what you are supposed to do (whether anyone is watching or not)

More of a moral framework I suppose, but if you take it to heart, you will never fail for lack of doing your absolute best.

Great post, Margie!

Janice Tomich
Janice Tomich

A leader knows how to take care of themself through a healthy lifestyle including taking time to reinvigorate themselves so they can best serve those who they lead. I completely agree with all of your points Margie - from one to fifty - but if you are not topping the well with reserve, a great, serving leader will quickly burn out. It was your number nine that tweaked my thoughts, a leader should be accessible (but not always accessible). A brilliant leader knows that he has led well when he knows his team can make decisions on their own as has been the direction and vision he/she has established.

Great list Margie! Thanks - I've printed it and it hangs above my desk. :D

Dan Perez
Dan Perez

Looking for the perfect leader? Forget it. This leader you're looking for here only exists in a #leadershipchat fairy tale. Akin to looking for the perfect spouse, you're gonna end up single unless you trim down your "list" to the core elements. Does this person make me believe in his vision and inspire me to take action? If the answer is yes, you've found your leader. Period.

Moreover, the successful 21st century leader isn't gonna be a heck of a lot different than the successful 20th century leaders (or 19th century leader) - they're gonna get people to believe in their mission and take action.

Don't let the many silly blog posts on "new" leadership fool you. There have always been great leaders and there always will be great leaders and the methods (core elements) will be the same. You know why? Cause it ain't broke. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

Nuff said.

Kathi Joy
Kathi Joy

Interesting and thoughtful list. I think an additional element to consider is the Context within which that leader is operating. Context, the larger external environment and localized culture, has a collective life of it's own that can either work with a leader's traits or against them. When the forces line up, it creates great leverage. When context challenges the leader's traits, that's when true character and ability to take action show up.


I'm humbled, Margie. Reading through your list (50!) was almost like reading a liturgy of the saints. Just replace "leader" w/Ma Teresa, Tutu, J Brown (!), Theo Monk...whoever...and I'm inspired. Despite a stammer and funny hair, I may have a niche in the servant leadership market you describe. ~m

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Thanks, Todd. Glad to hear it resonated with you!

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Thanks so much, Gabriella. I really appreciate that.

I included that particular one because I think we always strive to carry others, and you just can't do it if you're not 100% ok yourself. It's like my mom always says - don't try to save someone from drowning if you can't swim. So true!

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Thanks, Linda. If there's one thing I can lead in, it's being verbose :)

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Thanks Jenn! Sounds like you could write your own post on this subject and it would far outshine mine!

Thank you for your kind words. This was a fun nut to crack for me :)

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Sounds like a great framework. I think the "doing" is where some leaders lose track of things. The weight of decisions can sometimes seem to overshadow the completion of menial tasks (or seemingly menial tasks that are actually really important).

Great comment!

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Well, you're right, of course. I would not really expect any one person or even any one group to encapsulate everything here. But it's nice to dream :)

And I agree, I don't think leadership has changed in the 21st century. I think it gets transmitted and translated in new ways, but generally, the same core principles people admire have remained the same since time immemorial.

Hey, don't stab me in the back and I won't stab you in the back. OK then.

Thanks for coming by, Dan :)

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

Absolutely! Great point. Would FDR have been considered a great leader if he had not been in office during World War II? Would Abraham Lincoln have been a great president if he had not guided us through the Civil War? It gets hard to picture these leaders without the context that created and forged them. Excellent point indeed. And probably another blog post :)

Margie Clayman
Margie Clayman

I think some of the best leaders are the most humble - and as for Mother Theresa, I did have her in mind for a lot of these traits. Her biggest worry was not herself, but rather for the people she was helping. She wasn't leading marches or starting revolutions in the classical sense - she was leading by example. I admire that kind of person and that kind of trait.


See, now this is where the rest of the list comes in and why there is no roadmap to becoming a leader.

You say the weight if decisions can overshadow - true, very true, however, you also get those who feed hungrily off of the "power" (yes, I used quote/unquote... on purpose) inherent in a leadership position. If this happens, they will direct---dictate what needs to be done and never get their 'suit' dirty. They immediately lose the respect of their subordinates and they will no longer be followed willingly.

You can never ask someone to do something that you have never done, aren't willing to do, or haven't done before.

That is why I work at times that I do not necessarily have to. My subordinates see it, know I am willing to do it, and it inspires them.

[ I could talk about this all day, Margie, sorry! :D ]