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Three Traits of Effective Leaders

Updated: Dec 25, 2022

No matter who you are, you probably need to influence others. Parents need to influence children, teachers need to influence students, managers need to influence employees, students need to influence classmates, and partners need to influence partners. Anyone who needs to influence others, whether or personal or professional reasons, is called a leader.

There are many leadership theories out there, but a simple one that I find to be very insightful and practical is one from traditional Chinese teachings, which states that an effective leader has three traits:

  1. They lead by example.

  2. They show genuine care for their followers.

  3. They patiently teach and coach their followers.

Trait 1: Leading by Example

If your boss tells you to work hard, but you see her always slacking off, are you going to be inspired to work hard? Of course not.

If your partner tells you to plan more fun activities and vacations, yet they never plan any, are you going to be inspired to plan fun activities and vacations? Probably not.

When others practice don't what they preach, people lose respect for them. They think, “You’re not even doing what you’re preaching, why should I?” or “You’re no better than me, you have no credentials to tell me what to do.”

On the other hand, if you always see your boss working extremely hard, even though she doesn’t verbally tell you to work hard, you will probably feel inclined to add in extra effort in your work. If your partner often plans fun activities and vacations, you will probably feel inclined to at least help out and contribute.

In the picture above, the "boss" is not an inspiring leader, and his followers will not be happy. The "leader" is leading by example, and his followers will be inspired. The Confucian classic The Great Learning states,

"A virtuous person first demands himself to possess any good quality before expecting others, and first demands himself to rid any bad qualities before expecting others."

(Original text: 君子有诸己而后求诸人, 无诸己而后非诸人)

Hence, the first quality of effective leaders is that they lead by example, and they ensure others see their example.


One time, a mother brought her son to see Gandhi. The mother said, "My son eats too much sugar. It is bad for his health. Will you please tell him to not eat so much sugar?"

Gandhi listened patiently, smiled, and said, "Please come back in two weeks."

To weeks later, the mother and son came back. This time, Gandhi looked at the son firmly and said, "Young boy, don't eat so much sugar. It is bad for your health."

The young boy really admired Gandhi, so he nodded and promised. The mother was bewildered by why Gandhi had asked them to wait two weeks, so she asked Gandhi, "Why didn't you just say that to him two weeks earlier?"

Gandhi replied, "Two weeks ago, I ate a lot of sugar. How could I tell someone else to not do so?"

Trait 2: Showing Genuine Care

Let’s suppose that your boss tells you to work hard, and she indeed sets a good example. But the thing is, you see yourself as very different from your boss. She’s very ambitious in her career aspirations, whereas you focus more on family. So then when your boss asks you to work on stretch projects, you don’t feel inclined to do so.

What’s the problem? The leader needs to show genuine care for the follower. There are many ways to this, such as

  1. Taking the time to learn about them, their situation, goals, and feelings.

  2. Telling them that you support them in their goals.

  3. Giving them words of encouragement and appreciation.

  4. Doing things for them that help reduce their stress or workload.

  5. Giving them tiny gifts to show that you care about them.

When a follower trusts that the leader always has his best intentions in mind, he will be inspired and motivated to follow the leader’s direction.

Another Confucian book called Standards for Disciples (弟子规) states,

"If we force others to do something, their hearts will not be with us. If we use good logic and calm their emotional worries, then they will have nothing left to say."

(Original Text: 势服人, 心不然, 理服人, 方无言)

In the case of the ambitious boss and the family-oriented employee, the boss should first develop a strong relationship with her follower, listen to her follower's concerns, and link any requests to work extra hard towards her followers’ personal goals. When the follower realizes that the leader knows his personal goals and has his best intentions in mind, he will be inspired to follow.


The Buddhist master Jing Kong shared a small story from when he was young. Before he became a monk, he worked in a government office. Sometimes, work was not busy, so he would read some newspapers or books. He had a bad habit of not sitting properly, and sometimes he would lean on the back of his chair, and the front two legs of the chair would lift up.

One time, his manager saw this, then the manager came over from behind and tapped his shoulder. He immediately stood up. The manager did not scold him, but instead, the manager used a caring tone of voice and said, "When you sit like that, it's very easy to fall over and hurt yourself!"

He never forgot the sincere care his manager gave him, and he never did that bad habit again. If the manager had instead scolded him, then he might have continued sitting that way after the manager left.

Trait 3: Teaching and Coaching Followers Patiently

Let’s suppose your partner asks you to plan more fun activities and vacations, and he indeed sets a good example. You’re busy, but he’s just as busy as you, and he finds the time to plan those activities. You also highly value and respect your partner because he understands you very well, and he shows great effort in contributing to the relationship.

The problem is, you just don’t know how to plan vacations. You don’t know how to research activities or research flights. You don’t know how to find flight deals. So despite your partner already setting a good example and showing genuine care in the relationship, you still feel resistant to following his request.

What can the leader do? A good leader will show followers how to complete the task before expecting them to be able to do that task alone.

If the leader really understands the follower (his partner in this case), he would realize that she lacks the skills to do his request. An Effective leader would voluntarily teach and coach her on how to do the task before asking her to do it alone. He would also be patient and verify that the follower has learned the ability or skill before letting her do it alone.

Result: An Effective Leader Doesn’t Complain

As a result of the three traits mentioned above, an effective leader realizes there’s nothing to complain about. The Analects of Confucius says,

"If a person does not get upset at others for not knowing better, then how can he not be a virtuous person?"

(Original Text: 人不知而不慍, 不亦君子乎)

If a good leader sees her followers not performing to her expectations, then she knows she must be lacking in one of the above three leadership traits, hence she must improve herself. There is nothing to complain about.

For example, if an effective parent sees her child always sleeping in and wasting time, she won’t say, “Why are kids so lazy these days?” Instead, she’ll reflect first on if she sets a good example (and if other role models of the child sets good examples). Then she’ll reflect on if she built a strong relationship with the child. Lastly, she’ll reflect on if the child understands the significance of laziness. After reflecting, she might realize that the child needs to see better role models and to understand the consequences of laziness. There’s no feelings of blame towards the child.

If an effective manager sees his team members being selfish, he won’t say, “Why are people so selfish these days?” Instead, he will first set a good example with his own actions and make sure his team members see him being considerate and being a team player. He will also build a strong relationship with each person so that they trust that their leader has their best intentions in mind. Finally, the leader will consider if his team members know how to be considerate and why it’s important. After all, they might’ve grown up in a culture and environment that promotes selfishness as being normal. If so, then it’s important to teach the team without any feelings of blame or resentment, but rather with feelings of care and goodwill.

Concluding Thoughts

Who do you often need to influence as part of your routine life?

How effective of an leader are you in terms of the three qualities?


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