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6 Traits of a True Leader

David Epstein, MD, MS, FAAP discusses 6 traits of a true leader and their importance in how they affect a team or organization.
Leadership is not easy and finding true leaders is frequently challenging.
All too often, one is placed in a position of leadership and acts as a manager and not a true leader. True leaders exhibit characteristics that position them to not just make sure that tasks are completed but to create a culture around task completion that provides mutual caring, collaboration, belonging, enthusiasm, and many other positive modifiers that denote a high-functioning team. The high-functioning team will outperform and outlast those that are devoid of the culture created by a true leader. It is always said that most leaders manage rather than truly lead. There are 6 traits that separate a true leader from a manager or poor leader.
A true leader…
1. Listens
Listening is so often overlooked as a key component of leadership. While one can listen, one still may not hear what is being said. True listening comes with internalizing the message behind the words and understanding what is being said. If one actively listens, one can attain better comprehension with follow-up questions and deeper conversations to get more out of what is being articulated. For example, if staff members are complaining or expressing their concerns about something, the idea is to hear what they are saying and dig deeper to get more details. Exploring why they feel the way that they do and the context will allow better insight into their perceptions and distress. Only by truly hearing others can relevant changes or adjustments be made.
2. Does Not Micromanage
Leaders are like parents. Their job is very similar in that the ultimate objective is to develop members of an organization who can be autonomous and critically think through situations to further the goals of the organization. As parents, we raise our children and teach them with the ultimate objective of them being autonomous adults. If we continued to treat a teenager like they were a toddler by doing everything for them and overseeing all of their activities without giving them the freedom to make mistakes or succeed independently, we would be doing them a grave disservice. The teenager would be ill-prepared to face the world and integrate into society as an adult.
Integration and maturation of members of an organization are much the same in that without certain degrees of freedom, the members of the organization will not evolve and will always depend upon the instructions and directions of the leader. Of course, not every team member is at the same stage of development in the organization and each will require appropriate levels of support for their developmental stage. But, micromanaging an organization will prevent young team members from evolving and more mature team members from having the freedom to fully contribute and exhibit the full extent of what they have learned. The result will be a dependent, inexperienced, and unprepared young team member and a frustrated, unfulfilled, and resentful mature team member. Both of these outcomes will doom an organization to failure by creating a toxic culture of dependence and not grooming a successor to perpetuate the organization.
All the successes and failures fall on the shoulders of the micromanaging leader, but there is no legacy. When the micromanaging leader leaves, the organization will cease to exist because no one was trained properly or given the responsibility to contribute to the fullest extent of their abilities. The organization’s growth is stunted. Just as a parent raises children to become adults who are independent contributors to society and are able to continue the cycle of raising their own children, a leader must raise their team in much the same way. A true leader will orchestrate the development of team members with the intent to enable them to continue their duties and critically think without relying on the leader to oversee them constantly. True leaders develop leaders, just as parents raise children to be responsible adults.
An experience in leadership, from my time as a trainee in critical care medicine, stands out in my mind. I was a pediatric critical care fellow, meaning that I was not an attending physician in pediatric critical care medicine. An attending physician is someone who has completed all of their training and oversaw trainees and worked independently. I had an attending who was training me and said that “his goal was to create a great attending and not a great fellow”. It was only years later that I really appreciated what he said. He wanted his trainees to be prepared to be an attending and be autonomous. His aim was not to develop someone into a great trainee who still needed supervision after they were officially finished with their training. His words have resonated with me to this day and have shaped how I train and lead others.
3. Thinks with Systems in Mind
Thinking with systems in mind is important for the success of any organization. An organization or team needs consistency in processes and actions to generate the best results. The focus moves from relying solely on individual performance to relying on the team and everyone’s role and responsibility. The organization does not penalize the individual for mistakes or deviations from practices. The mistakes and deviations make the organization or team rethink how they can make the individual better by supporting and refining the system.
If one blames the individual for the failure of the team or organization, the leader has not performed their job correctly and does not understand true teamwork. Creating a system is one of the secrets to success and optimizing teamwork. A system will amplify the strengths of the individual while supporting their limitations. A well-designed system will ensure that a team or organization performs at its best.
4. Appreciates and Shows Gratitude
Appreciation and gratitude strengthen human connections. Everyone wants to know that they matter. A leader who shows true appreciation and gratitude towards others, regardless of their position, builds authentic relationships and connections with others. These relationships translate into mutual respect and admiration that propagates a supportive and collegial environment.
As time passes, this supportive and collegial environment builds the trust in the leader that is needed for the growth and development of the team or organization. The leader acquires the loyalty required to guide the team or organization. Appreciation and gratitude power the relationships of trust and goodwill. Without appreciation and gratitude, a team or organization will crumble from the feelings of resentment and indifference that come with humans not feeling valued. However, if someone feels valued, the feeling acts as a strong motivator to perform well and invest in the organization.
5. Practices “It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It”
The same exact words can be said by two different leaders but can be interpreted differently just by how they are said. This is especially evident when someone is relaying criticism of a job or performance. Criticism can be constructive by generating a learning opportunity and fostering a desire to do better or destructive by squashing someone’s confidence or invalidating their abilities.
Constructive criticism is relayed with words of genuine instruction and concern for the individual. The criticism is not punitive or demeaning. The words infuse the learner with a desire to perform better. This desire is not fueled by fear or insecurity, but by a true desire to improve and by a bolstering of self-confidence. Who wouldn’t want to perform better if words of criticism were relayed with the spirit of honest support and consideration?
Destructive criticism, on the other hand, is relayed with words that insinuate incompetence and poor abilities. They break down an individual to force them to do things that the leader has decided are best. The words discourage creativity, critical thinking, and innovation. The learner is left in despair and their self-esteem is shattered. Who would want to perform better if words of criticism were relayed with the intent to belittle and disparage the learner?
How something is said can be a very powerful tool for good leadership and bad leadership. People can be inspired or discouraged by how a message is relayed. The content of a message can be the same but be interpreted very differently by how it is relayed by different leaders. So, while it is always important to choose words wisely, it is equally important to relay those words in a manner that encourages and not discourages, uplifts and not lowers, and praises and not punishes.
6. Shows Kindness
Kindness seems almost obvious. Who wouldn’t want to be kind to someone else? You would be surprised to see how often kindness is left out of the equation of leadership. A good leader needs to be kind. They need to be considerate of others and genuinely care about their organization or team.
Performance is enhanced by kindness. It doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be rules or that a leader shouldn’t be firm in their commitment to the success of their team. It means that one should lead with good intentions toward others on the team. A culture of kindness is created by a kind leader which brings a team or organization together. Without kindness, there is no mutual respect, empathy, or collaboration. Kindness infuses an organization and team with the desire to work together and care about how the individual is managing. It creates a collegial environment and fosters a sense of belonging. If kindness is absent, a leader creates a culture that is instilled with animosity, selfishness, and a lack of teamwork. A high-functioning and successful organization is the result of a kind culture.
True Leaders…
True leaders possess different qualities than managers or poor leaders. The 6 characteristics that I listed above are important components to anyone who wants to succeed at leadership in a way that creates a high-functioning team or organization. With these 6 traits in mind, an individual can create a team or organization that is something special in how it performs and will leave a legacy for others to continue and emulate. Stephen Covey said that “leadership is a choice, not a position.” True leadership is attained by the mindful, self-aware, and reflective individual who evolves by choosing to incorporate these 6 traits into their leadership practices.
In your experience, are there other important traits of a true leader that weren’t listed?

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