A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.
~Lao Tzu

When you think of ‘leadership,’ what comes to mind is probably managers working in companies, politicians or other people with a high public profile. There are many roles where leadership is overtly part of the job, but the qualities of leadership are needed in all kinds of different situations. If you’re a parent, then you need the skills of a leader. If you’re married, you’re a leader. If you have to teach a class or manage a family budget, you’re a leader. There’s really no getting away from it. Unless you live in a cave, it’s hard to live a happy and productive life without developing and using leadership skills.

So what are the essential traits of good leadership?

Credit: ShutterStock.com

Great leaders are role models. They are examples of the kinds of behavior they want to see in other people – risk taking, proactivity, self-reflection, honesty.

A good leader is able to empathize, to put himself in the shoes of another person, to recognize that other perspectives are valid and useful.

Good leaders never stop learning. They do not arrogantly believe that they know best in every situation, but are always on the lookout for new ways of doing things. They will seek the views of others and change their own ideas and ways of doing things accordingly.

Great leaders encourage open communication. They develop a culture where peolpe feel able to speak freely. She will spend time and energy trying to communicate in a genuine way. Meetings and conversations will be interactive and not just on person lecturing another. She will genuinely be open to what is said and will look under the surface to see what other people are really trying to say.

They encourage and support risk taking, encourage new kinds of thinking, originality and fresh perspectives. New ideas often fail when first implemented, and many innovations will lead nowhere. But without a culture which supports people in trying new things and seeing failure as useful feedback about what does and doesn’t work, great ideas will never see the light of day.

A great leader will give people freedom. She will empower people to take ownership of their own situation, to find their own solutions. They recognize that there are usually many different ways to get a job done well, and will give people the freedom to do so, not artificially imposing rules or restrictions.

A great leader never tries to force change. Situations can never be changed sustainably through force. Real, lasting change comes about when leaders carefully observe situations and follow their natural structure. They have a light touch – holding on too tight and being inflexible are sure ways to failure. A poor leader will try to control everything, but a great leader will know when to act and whan to leave well alone (which is very often). Lao Tzu wrote, ‘Governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish – too much handling will spoil it.’

Above all, great leaders make people feel good. There are always good things happening, and a good leader will always focus on success, good qualities, the things going right. He is positive and knows that the future is bright.

Think about areas in your life where leadership matters. Paying more attention to your leadership skills could make a huge difference to your work, your family or your business. Read more about organizational leadership degrees.