The Five Truly Essential Qualities and Capabilities of Leadership

The Five Truly Essential Qualities and Capabilities of Leadership

In twenty-five years of conducting hundreds of leadership workshops I have consistently raised the following questions: What do you expect of the leaders you want to or are willing to follow? What are the major characteristics of these leaders – as opposed to leaders you are forced to follow through their positional authority? In every case, the answers have always been about certain character traits that these leaders possessed. These character traits empowered the leaders to develop four very distinctive capabilities and one personal quality (authenticity) that inspired people’s willingness to follow them. These are the five essentials for successful leadership.

Firstly, leaders must have the capacity to envision a new and better possible future for the organisation or constituency they lead. It must also be clear that they have a strong belief in that future and a strong intention and commitment to create that future. This is the starting point for a follower’s willingness to pursue any great and challenging accomplishment expressed in the leader’s vision.

The second capability is the capacity to engage with and inspire others to embrace and share that envisioned possibility, and to contribute to finding strategies and solutions for realising that vision. To do this effectively requires a huge amount of face to face communication – it cannot be achieved by written documents. Psychologist Albert Merabian has shown that when communicating a general message (the envisioned possible future) 93% of the impact of the message is due to body language, facial expression and voice qualities, and only 7% to the words chosen. Face to face communication, using both inspirational monologue and much two way dialogue, is thus essential.

The third capability is to facilitate the formation and bonding of a team, organisation or network whose purpose is to actually create that future. Whether acquiring a previously existing team, network or organisation, or starting one from scratch, it must be built on the foundation of a culture that is:

  • Driven by a strong belief in and commitment to achieving that envisioned possible future; and
  • Is committed to a common set of shared values, appropriate for their specific company or industry – but which must always include mutual trust and respect.
As Harvard Business School professors John Kotter and James Hesket demonstrate in their classic work ‘Corporate Culture and Performance’, culture is the single most important factor in determining long term success for any organisation.

The fourth capability is the ability of leaders to manage themselves effectively, including their daily workplace behaviour, based on accurate and in depth self knowledge. Leaders must be fully aware of their natural strengths – but must be equally aware of their ‘blind spots’ or ‘Achilles Heels’, which may work against them and may negatively affect others. Having the capacity to manage themselves well is especially important when under pressure which often brings up intense emotions.

The fifth element is not really a capability but rather a personal trait: authenticity. An authentic leader must possess two qualities. Firstly, they must be individuals of good character, who espouse good values and advocate high ethical standards in all that they do. Secondly, authentic leaders are real: what they say they believe or value is exactly what they believe or value; their motives and intentions are exactly what they say they are; they do (or at least attempt to do) what they say they will do. Authenticity is the fundamental underpinning of the other four capabilities – and is absolutely essential in winning people over as willing and enthusiastic followers. This is the hallmark of all good or even great leadership!

Walter Bellin is the CEO of Corporate Crossroads and author of the new book Climb a Different Ladder: Self-awareness, Mindfulness and Successful Leadership (Jane Curry Publishing $29.95). For more information visit

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