One Leadership Attribute that Can Elevate Leaders from Good to Great

Four traits that I see regularly in above-average leaders: intellectual capacity, humility, drive & competitiveness, and emotional intelligence.

Ed Eppley
July 8, 2020

Leaders are often acknowledged and remembered for what they accomplish – meaning they are judged by their strategic vision, tactical actions, and overall performance of their teams. This includes both good and not so good leaders. But there is something that great leaders possess that has nothing to do with strategy and tactics. And in my experience, every truly great leader possesses this attribute. That attribute is self-awareness.

Self-aware leaders are those who can reach new heights of overall effectiveness, not because of what they alone can do, but more so because they understand through introspection how their behaviors impact their people and the business. It is critical to unlocking the trust and respect that motivates others to perform at their best.

There are four traits that I see regularly in above-average leaders. While leaders might be stronger in one trait over another, they embody all of these traits.  

  1. Intellectual capacity. Great leaders tend to think deeply, see opportunity, solve problems, learn from others, learn from their own mistakes, and possess an above-average level of curiosity in general or within specific areas of interest. By continually plumbing the depths of their intellectual capacity, self-aware leaders will accumulate more knowledge and experiences – two things that fuel continued growth.
  2. Humility. Humility is often a byproduct of having experienced a fair share of mistakes or failure. Leaders with a healthy sense of humility acknowledge they are not perfect. Further, they are not arrogant and avoid falling into the dangerous trap of believing the rules applying to others don’t apply to them. Because they are willing to admit they don’t have all the answers, they are more willing to listen, separating themselves from those who lack humility or whose arrogance is on display. Don’t confuse humility with the false humility version where an outward approach hides the true arrogance and privilege that less than great leaders believe they have earned or deserve.

  3. Drive and competitiveness. When it comes to competitiveness, many leaders see winning as the only acceptable outcome. For some that can mean winning at all costs. But self-aware leaders, while wanting to excel against competitors, are just as interested in looking inward and pushing themselves to achieve a higher standard. Their drive and competitive nature is about continuous improvement and getting better as a leader. Instead of being rewards-driven (think bonuses, additional stock options, or other perks), they become responsibility-driven, meaning they recognize the important work that needs to be done that others could do (work that lazy leaders will avoid), and willingly take it on themselves. This includes managing individuals, teams, running great meetings, a willingness and patience to over-communicate, and not being afraid to have uncomfortable conversations.

  4. Emotional intelligence. Navigating emotional intelligence well requires leaders to do three things: receive, understand, and act. First, self-aware leaders are attuned to the people and situations around them. Their antennae are up and receiving signals. Once received, self-aware leaders need to understand and interpret those signals, which determine what type of action is necessary. For example, if the signals being picked up are that employees become timid or are afraid of leaders when they walk down the hall, they acknowledge and adjust their demeanor and interactions with staff. They recognize that facial gestures and body expressions send nonverbal messages.

    Leaders don’t always catch or care enough about the signals coming in. But self-aware leaders keep their antennae up, recognize the signals, and process what they mean to help them become better leaders. The trap is in believing that leadership behavior and actions toward others doesn’t truly impact the people or the business.  

There are plenty of companies today filled with leaders who rose through the ranks based on their competence and their ability to produce results. And they might be good leaders. That said, competence doesn’t imply completeness when it comes to leadership.

Great leaders know more than just the business. They know themselves and have the self-awareness to know that it takes a lot more work to become great – a greatness that they’ll never claim to have achieved. With their drive to get better and grounded with a humble attitude, they know better.