What Leader Attributes Are the Most Important?

  • Published
  • By CMSgt R. Caleb Vaden
  • 42nd Air Base Wing

A leader's principal objective is to inspire those who choose to follow, to become the best version of themselves. Leaders show them their potential, yet they can only see it once the leader demonstrates their faith in them to achieve it!

Command Chief, 42 ABW

Leader Attributes

What Leader Attributes Are the Most Important?

If leaders do not have or display the right attributes, their effectiveness is limited!
~Colin Powell

I recently conducted a survey asking participants to use one word to describe the attribute they valued the most in a leader. This survey's results closely resembled what I have heard from countless participants in, in-person leadership presentations. There were 289 participants, and they were from various backgrounds, professions, ages, ethnicities, genders, and political beliefs.

I will not pretend that this is the result of thousands of participants, nor will I pretend that it is all-inclusive, nor a 100% accurate depiction of what followers across the globe prefer from their leaders. However, what we can deduct from these participants is that outside of some "playful" entries, like "Zeus" and "Spartacus," the highest valued attributes are all centered around human connection and human interaction!

Survey Time!

What drove the exact responses to the survey? I wonder if it was due to a lack of that specific attribute in their former or current leaders, or if it was because a former or current leader with that attribute had positively impacted them. Have you ever wondered what type of impact you have had or are having on the lives of those entrusted to coach, inspire, and lead? Trust me, it doesn't matter what level of organization we are in; we can and do impact those around us! Regardless of the reasons that led the participants to their entries, we can and will learn from them.

The "Top Four" Attributes are as follows:
1. Humility
2. Honesty
3. Trustworthiness
4. Compassion & Transparency (it was a tie)

You may not agree with the survey; however, try to keep an open mind about these attributes and compare them to how you lead. How are you perceived as a leader?

You may not know how you are perceived, so I suggest you consider some "360 feedback" to evaluate your style and what your most vital attribute may be, it may surprise you! Also, consider making this feedback anonymous. Yes, I know and understand that we should be able to be open and communicate regardless; however, that simply isn't everyone's reality, so by making your feedback anonymous, you may receive more feedback. You will be able to reduce the anonymity, after you build additional rapport with your team.

Leader's principal objective is to inspire those who choose to follow, to become the best version of themselves. Leaders show them their potential, yet they can only see it once the leader demonstrates their faith in them to achieve it!


As a reminder, if you always tell people that you are humble then you are not humble! What makes us want to follow a humble leader? What is a humble leader? I'm not the expert here; however, I've been around for a few years and seen my share of not-so-humble leaders. I am sure that you do not want to work for someone who is constantly letting everyone know that they are the expert "back in my day" or always the hero of the stories they tell. Everyone I've worked with wants to work for or follow someone they can believe in, someone who listens to them and their ideas, no matter how far up the ladder that leader is.

We want a leader that does what they say they'll do. I know you've seen or heard these false leaders who say, "Mop the floor, take out the trash, because leaders are not too good for that." Yet you never seem to see them with one measly mop or trash bag in their hand! What did you think of them? I bet it wasn't how humble they were! I know I used an easy example; however, it is simple to be a humble leader if it is in your heart to be humble.

We are all human, and no one is better than anyone else. Be thankful for the opportunity to lead, and lead people with as much love as possible. Never view yourself as better or in a position above them. Leaders are with and in front of their people! So, a humble leader who understands this, leads with empathy, and connects at the human level with everyone!

Honesty & Trustworthiness

I would like to assume that everyone gets this; however, it probably wouldn't be mentioned if everyone did! Is it too much to ask for leaders to be honest and trustworthy? I hope that if you are in a leadership position, you would be a decent enough human to be honest and trustworthy! With an incredibly high degree of certainty, I will assume you do not like dishonest people and that it would never be your first choice to work for or follow a corrupt leader!

Have you ever been subjected to the leadership style of "do as I say, not as I do"? I'm sure that you have; and I am also sure that you were not inclined to give more of yourself than required. Sometimes, if we are not diligently disciplined, we can over-commit and end up forgetting or being unable to meet our commitments. Then, we intentionally make it worse by not letting those counting on us know beforehand or never following up later.

Yes, I said intentionally because most of the time, we make a choice. That thought will pop into our head, "You should call or text to let them know you aren't going to be able to make it," yet we choose to make excuses for our inaction.

Then, looking at that situation, how do you think those people you let down feel? Will they understand that you were too busy or caught up with something? We must be intentional about these things because we will often be viewed as dishonest or untrustworthy based on our actions, not our intentions!

We are imperfect humans, and I'm not saying we must be perfect. What I am saying is that we must not overcommit ourselves. When we cannot make good on our commitments, we must communicate that. Then, when we mess all of that up, we must apologize and seek forgiveness.

Compassion & Transparency

How far you go in your life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life, you will have been all of these.
~George Washington Carver

These two attributes were tied, so it was only fair to give them both attention.
What comes to mind when you hear "compassionate"? For some, the thought of weakness creeps into their minds. I have had people tell me that. They believe that compassion is just another way of saying weakness or pushover. People with these beliefs think that way because they feel that the leader must be stern and not be pushed around by every little whim of their followers.

I couldn't disagree more! Being a compassionate leader means that they lead with empathy. They can connect with those that they lead and truly understand what they are going through.

Just because someone is compassionate doesn't mean they are weak or do not hold others to high standards. It means they genuinely care about those they lead and see them as human. We all go through things in life; if we cannot show compassion as a leader, we don't have any business leading!

Honestly, how hard is it to show compassion? What does it cost us to be kind? I promise it will cost us much more not to be kind. We will damage and potentially devastate our relationships. Additionally, we will negatively impact our missions or jobs because our current team will only give what is required, nothing more. Then, they will most likely move on to another place of employment and leave a wake of "warnings" to other would-be top-performing employees. I am sure you have heard the adage, "People don't quit their jobs; they quit their bosses."

Do you think that people quit their compassionate bosses or leaders? No! They leave those who gave up on them or never had faith in them. In my experience, leaders who cannot or choose not to show compassion struggle with pride. Do you like working for a prideful boss or leader? My guess is "no" "Let's be leaders that set the example for others by being compassionate!

Podcast here

While this concept is simple, I must warn you to apply it cautiously. It would help if you did not lead with such transparency that you share personal or sensitive information. You have probably been in an organization where you were like, "Why do we do it that way? Why did they get the promotion or award when I know I am better than them?" Right? If you have, lean in, and learn so you do not repeat that same leadership mistake that creates the environment that spawns those questions.

My friend Brian Kruzelnick says that transparency and trust are on a sliding scale, and you must adjust as applicable for desired results, depending on your team. I agree with his concept and that is where I want to drop in on the transparency attribute. Transparency only works with high vulnerability, but that is a different topic. (Be on the lookout for that one soon!)

As a leader, you must create a certain level of transparency so that your team can "see" what is happening. Our processes must be transparent to the extent that is possible. We will not share personal information; however, the procedures should be 100% transparent. There should never be a time when someone we lead has a question about our organization's processes that they cannot locate within the organizational structure. We should be more transparent if they have a process/procedure question that cannot be answered.

How about when it comes to you personally, and how does it pertain to your leadership abilities and effectiveness? What level of transparency should leaders lead with?

These are questions I often receive at my leadership presentations. Lead with a level of transparency that you are comfortable with until you can establish a better rapport and relationships with your team. You do not want to seem robotic as a leader, but you may still need to be comfortable sharing your entire life story.

It is beneficial when I share my story with people. Now, I do not share it when I first meet the team, but over time, I share more and more as they get more comfortable with me. It is essential for those we lead to understand that we are human, too! It also helps tear down the invisible barriers that mysteriously exist between the leaders and their teams in most organizations. If you want to connect with your team, you must be transparent. When you make a mistake, own it. Do not blame it on anything, nothing at all; own it! That right there is some of the most impactful transparency!

Final Thoughts

Do you demonstrate any of these leadership attributes? Would your followers say the same thing? When was the last time you performed a 360 feedback on yourself? Well, I want to challenge you to do that right now! It doesn't matter if 300 people, 3,000, or even 300,000 responded to this survey because, ultimately, the respondents keyed in on some great attributes.

I challenge anyone to provide reason(s) as to why every leader shouldn't demonstrate one or all the attributes we discussed here. We can all associate with these attributes and would much rather follow a leader with these than without! Leading is like a battlefield. You never know what will happen next, regardless of any planning you have accomplished. We must be "legit" leaders out there, setting the example!

A "legit" leader is a true warrior; even though they may not bear a weapon in their daily activities, they have the warrior mentality. There are plenty of times in a leader's journey that it would be easier not to care or to give up; nevertheless, a leader will certainly not do that because they dare to fight! Leaders must also demonstrate strength, not physical strength, but rather a strong and courageous mindset, not easily phased by the chaos around them.

There are many times that the leader will be the only thing between chaos and calmness, and if leaders fail to be calm in the storm, their team will fail. A strong, courageous leader must remain humble because otherwise, they will lose their ability to relate or connect with those around them. If you cannot connect with those entrusted to lead, you will fail!

In the end, spend time communicating with your team, being humble, always telling the truth, showing compassion, and being transparent. They will appreciate that more than you can imagine and follow you anywhere.

Read more about these concepts and others at, BOOT Leadership.