Three Traits of Effective Leaders

Updated: Jan 21

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 teach and coach their followers.

Note that in this article, a “leader” is anyone who needs to influence another person to do something. Therefore, everyone is a leader because we live in an interdependent society, and this article will use both personal and professional examples.



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.


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


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. She needs to develop trust in her relationship with her follower. 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.


In this case, the boss could develop a strong relationship with her follower 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.


Trait 3: Teaching and Coaching Followers

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? Well, 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 developed 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.


If an effective leader 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 leader 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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