Be the Leader They Need You To Be: The 5 Leadership Essentials

“The greatness of an organization will be directly proportional to the greatness of its leader.”
– Henry Blackaby

Leadership — as authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner point out — is the art of mobilizing others “to want to get extraordinary things done” in an organization. Great leadership starts with the personal attributes of the person at the helm and cascades from there.

So what matters most? What leadership characteristics does your team need to see in you in order to enthusiastically choose to follow? Since you can’t be all things to all people, what must you be in order to ensure that your team is well-led?

More of an art form than a science, great leaders are recognizable by an admirable collection of personal traits and professional abilities that compel us to follow. For example, check out the YouTube video of Admiral William H. McCraven’s 2014 Commencement speech at the University of Texas which (to date) has been viewed by more than 3 million people. Most would agree that there is “something about him” that forms the immediate impression that he is a great leader. Yet agreeing on a formal definition of leadership is tricky. It’s a bit like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s awkward attempt to articulate a concrete definition for what qualifies as lewd material under the 1st Amendment: “I know it when I see it.”

My firm, Cause Strategy Partners, recently tackled this challenge by asking a wide network of LinkedIn members a simple question: What one quality or characteristic do you most need to see in your boss? A whopping 14,301 professionals have responded to date, sharing the most important characteristic that they expect to see in their leader. We have received responses from individuals across professions, across ethnicities, and across the globe. This research provides an eye-opening insight into what it takes to be the leader they need you to be.

Of the 300+ unique words offered in response to the question, 90% fit into 18 core leadership qualities. Even more notable, nearly two-thirds of the responses fall into the top five leadership qualities. We call these The Five Leadership Essentials:

Integrity / Honesty 27% of all responses
Support 12%
Leadership 11%
Visionary 5%
Inspiring 5%

If you ask a member of your team what they hope to see in you, more likely than not the response will be one of these attributes. These are the traits that compel people to choose to follow. These are the characteristics that inspire others to believe in their boss. They are leadership essentials.

Interestingly, we saw gender-based correlations among the top 18 responses. A significantly higher percentage of women chose Communication and Appreciation as their selected characteristic. Men were more likely to choose Fair and Humble over their female counterparts. Of The Five Leadership Essentials, there was gender parity with the exception of Visionary which was a more common response for males (65%) than females (35%).

Taken as a whole, the top five leadership characteristics are even more striking when we consider the laudable qualities they beat out, in many cases by substantial margins: characteristics like Transparent, Open-Minded, Determined, Courageous, and Loyal.

The Five Leadership Essentials are mission critical for a leader. More important than the meetings you will attend, the emails you will return, or the plans you will devise, these are the things you must both be and do.

Lead with integrity and honesty in every word and deed, every day.

Support your team. Invest personally in each one, helping them optimize their performance and potential.

Provide leadership with a point of view. Show your grit and be courageous.

Be visionary. Paint the picture of a better tomorrow that you’ll reach together. Show them how to get there.

Inspire. Let your passion for the mission be an irrepressible, contagious force for good.

Real Talk. How are you doing on The Five Leadership Essentials? Are you the leader they need you to be? Take a personal audit.

  • If someone were to ask your team members to score you A through F on each trait, how would you fare?
  • Which leadership essential comes easy for you? Which is the least natural?
  • Are there one or two that need your personal attention right away?
  • Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting practice that partners with foundations and corporations to help social good organizations achieve their missions fueled by great leadership, great strategy and, most importantly, great results. Visit us at

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