Five Traits of True Leadership

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 17, 2008 · 26 comments

in Money & Career

We all lead at some point in our life. We serve as leaders in our jobs, in our communities, and in our families. For many, being a leader means having the power to control others. Those who take this view eventually find that the more they try to control people, the less influence they have over them. For others, leadership means being in a position of authority. Yet, a man can be a leader even if he’s on the bottom of the totem pole. When a man sees that something must be done, he won’t let his lack of position limit him from taking charge; he steps into the gap and assumes responsibility. True leadership is not about superiority, position, or prestige. It’s about revealing and releasing the potential of those around you. Leadership is not about the power of one, but facilitating the greatness of many.

Unfortunately, many men today are sloughing off leadership responsibilities either because of laziness or apathy. They would rather live a life of ignoble ease and have others shoulder the responsibility for them. But the world needs the leadership of virtuous men more than ever. When you’re called to serve as a leader, will you be ready to take on the challenge?

In 1950, the United States Military printed a small book for all armed forces officers on how to become better leaders and men. In it, five traits are set forth on what makes an effective leader. We’ve taken these traits and explored their meaning and application for every man whether an officer or a civilian.

1. Quiet resolution. An effective leader has the resolve to see every task through to the end. Resolve is easy to have in the quiet before the storm comes. Resolve is a breeze when one’s commitment has never been tested. It is when the fear, chaos, and stress of a crisis hits that true resolve is revealed. In any situation, there will be an opportunity for retreat, an escape hatch, the chance to shirk responsibility and choose safety and defeat over risk and greater reward. At that moment, the man with quiet resolve does not waffle, he does not doubt the choice that he knows is right. Without the terrible grip of indecision seizing him, he is cool and levelheaded, unflappable in the face of challenge. He is not loud, yelling and frenetically scurrying about in an attempt to cover his lack of grit with useless action. The man with quiet resolution is a man others can feel supremely confident in. While the world around him goes to pot, he knows what his mission is and he calmly fulfills it. He is the anchor in the storm.

How to become a leader with quiet resolution:

Do not wait for a crisis to emerge to make a decision. Inventory your values and goals, and set a plan for how you will react when certain crises arise and important decisions need to be made. DO NOT wait to make you choice until the heat of the moment, when you will be most tempted to surrender your values. Set a course for yourself, and when trials come, and you are sorely tested, you will not panic, you will not waver, you will simply remember your plan and follow it through.

2. The hardihood to take risks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Great achievements come to those who are willing to take risks. A leader who continually plays it safe will never put themselves or the people they lead in a position to experience success. A life without risks is surely alluring; its sweet lullaby of safety and comfort has lulled many a man into the trap of mediocrity and apathy. The weak man stands at the crossroads of decision, tempted by the possible reward and yet paralyzed by the fear of defeat. He is blinded to the fact that even failure brings its own rewards. Without failure a man never comes to know himself, his limits, his potential, and what he is truly capable of. A man who never dares greatly fails to see that he has taken the greatest risk of all: the risk that he will never progress, never refine his soul, never amount to anything worthwhile.

How to become a leader that takes risks:

The fear of taking risks can be very real. You cannot expect to have the courage to take a large risk when you have had no experience taking small ones. So find opportunities in your daily life to take little risks. It could be as small as approaching a stranger and striking up a conversation. Find an activity that frightens you, like public speaking and go for it. As you venture more risks, you develop the capacity to overcome your fear and gain the wisdom to know when a risk is worth taking. You will achieve the mettle to take the big risk when your leadership abilities are truly called upon.

3. The readiness to share in rewards with subordinates. A great leader, although supremely confident, humbly acknowledges that no success, no matter how large of a role he personally played in bringing it to fruition, is a wholly solo effort. He is deeply grateful for all those, even those with small roles, who played a part in the achievement. And he understands human nature. He understands that people love to be recognized for their contributions. When a group or organization succeeds, a true leader makes it a priority to recognize both in public and private the contributions of those he led. When a person sees that a leader is humble and will share in success, they’ll be more willing to follow that person.

How to become a leader that shares rewards with subordinates:

Sharing success with the people who follow you can be as easy as offering public recognition or increasing their compensation. A simple thank you card expressing your gratitude for an employee’s effort in completing a project can go a long ways in building loyalty to you and your organization. When offering thanks or giving praise, try to be as specific as possible. It shows the person you lead that you are keenly aware of what they do and makes the thanks or praise more personal and sincere.

4. An equal readiness to take the blame when things go adversely. It is when things go wrong that true leaders are separated from the pretenders. The weasel leader will gladly accept the accolades when he and his team succeeds, but will find another individual to take the fall when things get tough. When followers see this, it completely demolishes any confidence and allegiance to that leader. True leaders will take responsibility for all consequences of their decisions, even the bad ones. Even when the results were the fault of a subordinate, a true leader will still take all the blame. Perhaps the leader failed to communicate clearly what the subordinate’s duty was, or maybe the leader failed to match the right man with the right job. After taking responsibility for the results, an effective leader will immediately take action to correct the situation.

How to be a leader by taking the blame when things go adversely:

When taking the blame, you must do so sincerely. Your confession must spring from a genuine belief that you were at fault. To accept blame, but to do so grudgingly, makes you a boy, not a man. Never play the part of the martyr and seek glory for taking the fall. Likewise, don’t take the blame publically, but then tell your subordinates that the only reason you took responsibility was to save their asses. You’ll look like a phony and deteriorate their trust in you.

5. The nerve to survive storm and disappointment and to face each new day with the score sheet wiped clean; neither dwelling on one’s successes, nor accepting discouragement from one’s failures. All of history’s great leaders had moments of supreme success and moments of devastating defeat. Great leaders focus on the things they can change and influence, and the past is not one of those things. If you fail, learn from it and then immediately cease to dwell on it. Rehashing the past will not do anything for you. Moreover, the people a man leads will lose confidence in their leader if they continually brood over their failures.

When you succeed, celebrate with your followers, and move on. A leader who continually dwells on past success shows that he has not set his eye on greater things. Additionally, as we learn from the Greeks, a leader’s hubris can quickly become their downfall. Always stay humble and hungry.

How to become a leader by not living in the past:

Read biographies of great leaders from history. By reading about the lives of these great men, you’ll learn that even the best leaders faced enormous setbacks. You’ll gain perspective and come to see that one failure does not mean the death of a man’s capacity to lead. And the amazing feats of the great men of history will inspire you to believe in the powerful influence on history a true leader can wield.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 schaefer August 17, 2008 at 8:22 pm

Outstanding post! The military has always been at the forefront of leadership training and although this is vintage, it shows why military members understand how to develop the men and women around them.

“True leaders will take responsibility for all consequences of their decisions, even the bad ones. Even when the results were the fault of a subordinate, a true leader will still take all the blame.”

It’s amazing how rare it is to see the above played out in most of today’s organizations. Just look at the Enron hearings as the prime example – leaders constantly blaming those underneath them and pleading ignorance. What a bunch of cowards!

Thanks for bringing forth some leadership gems in a leaderless age.

2 derek August 17, 2008 at 10:16 pm

One addition: Service
A leader serves the people.
Thanks for a good read!

3 Jack August 18, 2008 at 4:18 am

One very important leadership trait I learned in the Army (from the example of one very poor Sergeant Major): if you constantly have to remind your underlings you’re in charge–you’re not.

4 cory huff August 18, 2008 at 6:33 am

Brett, I’m constantly amazed at your posts. You must spend a tremendous amount of time on research.

Leadership is a passion of mine, and I’ll be going back over this later today.

Unfortunately, I have a boss who thinks leadership is yelling and screaming. He makes an idiot of himself daily, but he’s still “in charge.” Maybe you could do a follow up post on how to help your own leaders better themselves?

5 tsims August 18, 2008 at 6:38 am

Excellent post. Leadership is a very important skill that is often left out for young people of today’s world. Our society focuses much more on looking good on the outside than it does on strengthening the inside. I think a little leadership training should be a part of everyone’s upbringing.

I also agree with Derek about serving. Serving your fellow man is a quality that every good leader should exemplify.

6 Hayden Tompkins August 18, 2008 at 6:58 am

#4 is so important. I am glad you added it!

7 Mike Perry August 18, 2008 at 7:07 am

It’d be great to know the name of that 1950 pamphlet and perhaps have someone post it online if, as with most government publications, it isn’t covered by copyright.

–Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace

8 Kevin (ReturnToManliness) August 18, 2008 at 7:28 am

I am starting a series of leadership posts over at Return To Manliness shortly. I will be using Bill Russell’s autobiography as the guide tool and it, of course, encompasses these five with 6 others.

I think many of us know these traits and understand them, but so very few are willing to do them. I wonder why this is case?

There are many potential explanations for this, but in our want it now, get it now society, people don’t have the patience to live by these standards.

For instance, people in our society are now brought up with the notion that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Worse, it is true for those looking for immediate resolution.

Interesting topic…

9 allen August 18, 2008 at 8:35 am

you learn more from bad leadership and their mistakes than good, usually. you learn what type of person/leader not to be.

10 Phil A August 18, 2008 at 5:59 pm

I live in a Navy town, and this accurately describes the leadership of men that I have come to respect and admire.

Soon I will be joining the Navy and with some backbreaking hopefully a SEAL. This was an extremely positive article… thank you.

11 FingerSoup August 19, 2008 at 2:04 am

Of course, there is one item that has not been brought up, that is a true pinnacle of being a leader. LEAD BY EXAMPLE. If you do not set an example for your subordinates to follow, your subordinates will end up either not meeting expectations because their efforts will not pass muster, or will balk at your hypocrisy. Nothing will de-motivate your subordinates more than an attitude of “Do as I say, Not as I do”.

Leading by example requires you to set examples both consciously, and instinctively. Using safety equipment is a good example to set. If your job requires a hard hat, and the boss doesn’t wear one on site, the boss is sending out a message that wearing one isn’t that important. For something this important, the boss should be proactive in bringing their hard hat to the site, and wearing it whenever appropriate, even if they spend most of the time in an office where one isn’t required.

12 Richard Williams August 19, 2008 at 7:16 am

An excellent piece of advice, for sure. On point #5, see:

13 Heather Hoven August 19, 2008 at 5:47 pm

Perfect. Now I can see how to perform with office politics. Thanks.

14 Kevin August 20, 2008 at 10:00 am

I strongly take issue with item 1. Your approach to your subordinates depends on the situation, it’s all about rhetoric – know your audience and their expectations.

Leadership is less about demeanor and more about managing expectations. I would replace Quiet Resolution with Managing Expectations.

This trait extends to all areas of leadership from handling individuals, and groups to handling the self.

15 Mike W. August 26, 2008 at 10:20 pm

A great poem about leadership and being a man and gentelmen is “If” by Rudyard Kipling. Here’s a great reading of it from youtube:

16 AMManess October 13, 2008 at 10:11 am

I have been thinking a lot about leadership lately. I wonder why? I guess it is part of the debate that may be intrinsically debated, but it should be fully examined. As I look at our future presidents, I see that it is leadership is missing from America today. The candidates speak of leadership, but there is something missing in their actions or words that truly shows leadership potential.

The president, in my humble opinion, must be the first to reassure the people of America in hard times. This does not mean, oh, we are working on the issues. We are working to get them resolved. I have a policy to help us out. Great. That is what you are supposed to do. Also, it shouldn’t be about political bickering that one side is not helping America. I am reminded of FDR’s speech during the Great Depression. He didn’t blame other people for the mess, or that one political party or president wrecked the economy. What did he do. First, he addressed the people as a leader. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Then he stated, later when talking about what will be done, “Through this program of action we address ourselves to putting our own national house in order and making income balance outgo.” Key, everyone working to out the national house in order. I haven’t heard that at all.

Another leader comes to mind when people want the government or someone else to come save them. That person is JFK, when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” People need to participate and lead to better themselves and this country. We are all leaders if we are to believe as another great leader, Lincoln, said we are a “government of the people, by the people, for the people….” This could mean looking at whether we, as leaders in our household, should get into a mortgage we don’t understand and importantly can’t afford. As a leader of our community to work towards bettering it by taking part in the local government or civic activities.

Finally, I guess key to all of this is the sense of duty. Leadership starts with duty. The “leaders” of this country have said that they are working to get the economy working basically so we can get rich or have money to buy things. What happened to duty. Save the economy or just do your jobs because it is your duty. As Robert E. Lee said, “Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.”

17 Dave Nelson March 24, 2009 at 11:14 am

This is a great post. I really wanted to read the book the post references and I think I’ve tracked it down. The book is “The Armed Forces Officer.” You can find PDF copies of the latest version without too much trouble via Google. I found the 1950 version in downloadable formats at:

18 Steve January 9, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Great stuff on sharing rewards, while shouldering blame. For more on true leaders

19 Scoutmaster skeptic May 21, 2010 at 8:50 am

The military is good at training leaders — for the military.

I have known military men who have successfully made the transition to civilian life, They are huge success in many cases. I also know others who have not. The latter are too often inflexible, self-righteous prigs that normal people don’t want to deal with.

I look especially askance at men who talk about how they “led” others, but never consider for a moment that insubordination would have meant time in the brig, or worse.

Seriously, the military does a lot of good for a lot of people, but it is a culture that is apart from democratic society, one that relies on the Military Code of Justice and literally denies its members access to the Bill of Rights.. We need to see it for its great strengths and — at times — frightening flaws. A democratic society strongly supports its warriors, but can never /fully/ embrace its armed forces for anything beyond their assigned task, which is to serve, defend, and remain subordinate to civilian authority.

20 Military Man February 5, 2013 at 12:46 am

@Scoutmaster Skeptic: I know this is an old post, but I need to respond to your comment.

The military does not train leaders; it develops them. It takes significant personal effort to become a true leader. A commander can have men following his orders, yet not following him. Thus, he is not a leader. But this is a rarity.

It sounds like you did not serve, so please don’t talk about time in the brig “or worse”, whatever that means. Insubordination is only an issue with dirt-bag troops; most disgruntled folks do what they’re told because IT’S THEIR JOB. Just like you wouldn’t tell your boss to shove it if you didn’t want to file that TPS report.

Regarding the UCMJ and the Bill of Rights, there are some limitations, but by no means are our rights denied. We made a choice to serve our country as citizen-soldiers. We are not mindless drones. We made an oath to protect and defend the constitution. So enjoy your right to spew nonsensical garbage regarding how the military operates.

You’re welcome.

21 Charles Vinici Mensah March 23, 2013 at 2:19 am

The above post about true leaders helps alot. Thanxs

22 madhu July 9, 2013 at 9:15 am

simple article with clear messages on leadership. and trust the army to know what they are talking about. they defend the honour of every nation.

23 Robert October 11, 2013 at 7:04 am

Outstanding article! Freaking awesome! I learned a lot. Thank you so much for this. A job well done!

24 george December 3, 2013 at 10:31 am

i have learnt new things about true leadership and re-enforced what i already new. thank you so much!

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