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• Last updated: June 3, 2021

The 45 Qualities Every True Leader Must Have

Officer proposing his military plan to his fellow colleagues.

Editor’s Note: The following is a excerpt from The ROTC Infantry Manual, published in 1942. You’d be hard pressed to find a better summation of a leader’s key qualities.

The Qualities of a Leader

What are the qualities which a leader should possess? There have been many attempts at listing the many good qualities which a leader should possess, and cataloguing those undesirable characteristics which he should not possess or should minimize or eliminate. Such a listing often serves only to discourage the aspirant to leadership, because, in summation, they seem to describe an unattainable ideal. However, a goal toward which to aim is necessary, if one is to shape his efforts in self-development so as to gain a satisfactory measure of accomplishment in preparing himself to lead, to guide and direct the efforts of others in any field of common endeavor.

The qualities of the leader may be grouped according to different methods. They may be separated into personal characteristics and professional capabilities; they may be classed as physical, mental, and moral qualities; or they may be considered as those qualities related to the leader himself, and those related to the individuals whom he aspires to lead.

Merely to enumerate the desirable qualities of a leader would accomplish little. But a consideration of some of these qualities will serve to illustrate the characteristics which we should watch for in others and which we should strive to develop in ourselves in order to prepare ourselves to be better leaders.

Loyalty. No quality is more important than loyalty. It is essential in both the leader and the follower, for it works both ways from the individual, and loyalty down is no less important than loyalty up. Loyalty begets loyalty, and an evident sense of devotion to the interests of his followers on the part of a leader is assurance of faithful and willing cooperation upon their part.

Simplicity. Too often is a realization of professional ignorance and lack of self-confidence manifested by an attempt to conceal these faults by vague and complicated orders, explanations, or conduct. The best results in the performance of a task are obtained by simple and direct methods, where the end to be attained and the means to that end are first clearly understood by the leader and then, through his efforts, clearly understood by his men.

Self-Control. No one can lead others until he can properly control himself. We are quick to realize the mastery in the man who can master himself. He who, when he makes mistakes in drill or in any other organized effort, loses his temper and attempts to “bawl out” his subordinates, thereby sacrifices in large measure their willing cooperation in the team play of the unit.

Tact. A sense of the appropriateness of things, of when and how to act, is an invaluable lubricant to the conduct of human relationships. When tact is lacking the military machine soon develops friction and is less efficient. Sympathy, kindness, generosity, and a consideration of the rights of others are all bound up in the exercise of tact in procuring the cheerful and whole-hearted performance of a desired action by others.

Energy, Enthusiasm, Diligence. Inaction in the face of a situation requiring positive measures is at once productive of failure. Capability without industry cannot result in success; but many a mediocre leader has succeeded through sheer energy and perseverance. In this truth lies the hope of the vast majority of us in our endeavors to lead others in the accomplishment of a common end. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm, and fires others to efforts of which they might otherwise not feel themselves capable. No man is beaten until he admits defeat, and impending defeat has often been turned into victory through the energetic and enthusiastic inspiration furnished by the leader.

Common Sense, Judgment, Acumen. It has often been said that common sense is one of the most uncommon attributes of the individual. But the exercise of common sense and good judgment is in large measure the foundation of active leadership. Knowledge is the background of common sense and judgment. Acumen denotes quickness of perception, keenness of discernment, sharpness in deduction, and ability in clear discrimination. The leader who can promptly estimate what his fellows will do under a certain set of circumstances, and who then can make a sound decision based upon the conditions as he sees they will develop, possesses qualities which place him upon a high level of leadership.

Earnestness. Sincerity of purpose, like enthusiasm, in a leader is soon transmitted to those whom he aspires to lead. Sham, hypocrisy, and bluff are all too readily unmasked, and he who attempts to conceal his ignorance or to “alibi” his mistakes will soon find himself not only a dethroned leader but an outcast from the fellowship of team-mates. Zealousness does not require a superior manner, but a conscientious willingness to go more than half-way in the solution of the task in hand.

Justice, Fairness, Impartiality. A sense of justice and a determination to deal fairly and impartially with all others are essential in any one who would control and lead others. The degree of respect, of admiration, and even of affection with which their faith in him is measured is in a very large measure determined by his possession and exhibition of these qualities. In little things even more than in big things does the demoralizing effect of partiality or unfairness make itself felt. Justice does not, however, necessitate domineering, bullying, or blustering tyranny. Usually, these are indications of secretly admitted incompetence or lack of faith in one’s own judgment or decision. Such measures are destructive instead of remedial. Nor is it necessary or desirable, in order to be fair, to be over-lenient, lax, or cajoling, for these qualities in the individual set to lead will quickly corrupt an organization through its lack of respect for his ability and qualities. Even a fool can tear down, but it takes a man of mind and character to build up

Willingness to Accept Responsibility. A willingness to accept responsibility is the foremost trait of leadership. Every individual from the highest commander to the lowest private must always remember that inaction and neglect of opportunities will warrant more severe censure than an error of judgment in the action taken. The criterion by which a commander judges the soundness of his own decision is whether it will further the intentions of the higher commander. Willingness to accept responsibility must not manifest itself in a disregard of orders on the basis of a mere probability of having a better knowledge of the situation than the higher commander. The subordinate unit is a part of a tactical team employed by the higher commander to accomplish a certain mission and any independence on the part of a subordinate commander must conform to the general plan for the unit as a whole.

Initiative and Vision. In order to have a willingness to accept responsibility, the individual must have initiative and vision. Many a cause has been lost through lack of foresight and vision on the part of those charged with the responsibility of planning the course to be followed. Many an action has bogged down in failure because the one in charge did nothing. An early edition of the Field Service Regulations stated: “In a given situation it is far better to do any intelligent thing consistent with aggressive execution of the general plan than to search hesitatingly for the ideal.” Such action takes initiative, and a willingness to accept responsibility and to act. In drill, for example, it is necessary to think ahead, to plan the next movement, and to be prepared at the proper time to give the necessary order. Organizations and groups of individuals often exhibit an inertia similar to inanimate matter and tend to remain at rest or continue in the same direction unless a controlling influence is exercised from without by the leader himself. Imagination and creativeness of mind are attributes which facilitate the exercise of initiative and vision.

Reliability and Dependability. These qualities are much to be sought for and developed in the follower as well as in the leader. It is a comforting thought to know that a task allotted will be well and surely performed, and the leader who knows that he can depend upon his subordinates is well served. Likewise, for those who follow to know that their leader will not desert them and that he is bending every effort toward their welfare and devoting every fiber of his being to their benefit is to call forth from them the last ounce of eager, loyal, and whole-hearted cooperation.

Decision, Resoluteness, and Perseverance. The ability to decide to act and then to act has characterized all successful leaders of history in whatever field of endeavor, and their success has been measured directly by the clarity of their decisions, the determination with which these were executed, and the tenacity with which they clung to their purposes. All this takes willpower, firmness, and the courage to follow the course decided upon. It has long been a military axiom that “a good plan once adopted and put into execution should not be abandoned unless it becomes clear that it cannot succeed. After-thoughts are dangerous, except as the aid in the execution of details of the original plan.” Moreover, a mediocre plan executed with determination, energy, and single-minded purpose will produce far better results than a better plan initiated belatedly or executed with vacillation and indecision.

Honor, Uprightness, and Truthfulness. Honor is an inherent quality in every human being, savage or civilized, young or old. It has its roots in self-respect and pride, a virtue as old as mankind. The morale of the individual and of the organization flows directly from the right to stand bravely and honorably among others. While truthfulness is not instinctive in the individual until the guidance of intelligence intervenes, mankind reveres the truth, as always, and our daily life is based in a very large sense upon reliance in the veracity, as in the dependability, of our fellows. Truth and honor do not make the leader; without them he does not exist.

Courage, Moral and Physical. Of the two kinds of courage, the physical is the more wide-spread. Yet, the individual who can be said to be truly fearless is a rarity. For physical courage is not wholly natural, and the instinct of fear and self-preservation can only be overcome when the individual possesses a character strong enough to prevent this instinct taking charge of his being. Marshal Ney once said that the one who claims that he never knew fear is a compound liar. On the battlefield, Turenne addressed himself thus: “You tremble, body; you would tremble more if you knew where I am going to take you.” It takes moral courage to overcome not only physical fear of pain or injury, but fear of failure, of humiliation or condemnation, of fatigue, discomfort, or the unknown. Such fear, once apparent, is contagious, and the exercise of self-control and willpower are necessary not only to harness the fear in one’s self but to prevent the spread among others. Otherwise panic and disaster may quickly follow, wherever or whatever the crisis may be. It is here that the leader must truly lead; here that the groundwork he may have laid must become evident, and his qualities make themselves felt.

Health, Strength, and Endurance. The development and maintenance of a sound body in which a sound mind may be securely housed is of no small concern to the leader as well as to the follower. Not all of us are naturally possessed of strong physique, exceptional vigor, or even unmarred health. But, like so many of the qualities which are in a measure inherent, we should seek to improve and develop those desirable physical attributes which will enable us better to perform the tasks which fall to our lot.

Physical size is not always the hallmark of the successful leader. Physical fitness is the measure of developing and maintaining the mean provided; vigor and manliness mark the use of these means; and fortitude and endurance are the indexes of the moral ability to whip these toward the goal when fatigue and discomfort cause the energies to flag and falter.

Presence and Manner. Closely akin to other physical qualities are those marking the appearance and bearing of the individual. It is of advantage to the aspirant toward leadership to develop and possess what may be termed a commanding presence. This decidedly does not mean ostentatiousness, pompous strutting, or dramatic self-consciousness. Rather does it involve a quiet, dignified, and self-assured bearing which in itself conveys proof of pride in one’s appearance, knowledge of one’s ability, and acceptance of one’s usefulness in the position occupied and for the task in hand. A neat and soldierly appearance creates an instantly favorable opinion. The power of example is tremendous, and can be used for good just as it can be allowed to wreak destruction in the appearance or morale of an organization. The list of “don’t’s” seems almost endless; but the mere mention of avoiding asperity and haughtiness, indifference and laziness, irascibility and petulance, uncertainty and vagueness, are enough to show the many pitfalls into which the leader may fall, with consequent jeopardy to his success and that of his organization.

Alertness, Quick Thinking, Presence of Mind. In battle or on the drill field as in all our daily life, he who would keep pace with the developments of a situation must be alive to events, be they big or little. The leader should maintain a position in thinking and perception just a little ahead of those he leads. Not only his own actions but those he desires of others depend upon his awareness of what is taking place and adaptability to constant change. To avoid “going to sleep at the switch” requires never-ceasing attention and vigilant heed to the moving circumstances surrounding the action.

Patience, Humor. Two qualities which are assets to the leader are patience and a sense of humor. The first of these is more necessary but hardly more valuable than the second. It is human to make mistakes, but the leader who quickly loses his patience and his temper over mistakes, which may all too often be the result of his own faults, usually loses also his chance of succeeding and the allegiance and cooperation of his organization. Impatience is an indication of lack of balance and of an inability to rise above the conditions, which have themselves become the master. A sense of humor often saves a situation which is slipping beyond control. The American possesses a strong sense of the ludicrous and reacts markedly to that which is incongruous or ridiculous. Laughter is a relief from strain, and cheerfulness and good-will frequently are stimulated by the release afforded by a timely witticism. Jokes at the expense of another are, however, often sources of ill-feeling, and satire, sarcasm, or clumsy and hurtful jibes are weapons rather than aids.

Balance and Prudence. A sense of the fitness of things implies an evenness of character and a freedom from erratic or misjudged overemphasis of one course of action or one manner of acting. Men want to know what to expect of their leaders, not so much in the details as in the broad assurance of the program to be followed. Under the cloud of uncertainty or the annoyance of what may appear to be whims or vagaries of the leader, they become restive, dissatisfied, aggrieved. They admire and will follow boldness, and even rashness, if it appears to them to be justified, but they soon falter and become undependable when the goal disappears, the course reveals itself as unreasonable, or the aim of the endeavors proves empty and fruitless.

Ambition. The human desire for advancement is a quality which is of advantage in both the leader and those whom he leads. It stimulates effort toward the attainment of a goal despite the obstacles which might otherwise discourage. But selfish ambition, fostered at the expense of others, or of the organization of which both leader and follower are members, is a dangerous and destructive quality to be avoided.

Manual Dexterity and Skill. The man who can do things is admired. The applicatory system of training and instruction is based initially upon demonstration, which requires that an example be set before those who are to learn. The execution of the movements in the manual of arms by an individual and of those in close order drill by the organization are steps in instruction of a value directly proportionate to the perfection with which they are accomplished. On the target range, an expert rifle shot sets a standard toward which all will direct their efforts. The aspirant to leadership will do well to qualify himself in those accomplishments which he desires to inculcate in his men.

Professional Knowledge. Ignorance of his duties and profession is a bar to leadership. To teach or train others, one must first possess a thorough knowledge of his subject. A drill master must know every detail of the movements to be executed, and this requires thorough and constant study. The military profession is a highly complex one; a theoretical and practical knowledge of its many ramifications can be gained only by hard work. It is a service in which the ladder of leadership must be climbed rung by rung as the field of individual effort is expanded. Often in other walks of life one may skip over one or more intermediate steps in advancing through the echelons of organization. But almost invariably, in the military service, attainment of the leading position in one echelon presupposes at least a pause or a passage through the lower grades or echelons. On the other hand, the higher the position of the leader, the less is it necessary or even possible for him to be familiar through personal experience with all the details of technique in the lower echelons. The general officer cannot know every detail of every arm or service comprising a part of the force he commands, but he must know the principles on which it operates. The corporal, however, must know better than any member of his squad every detail of the work of that squad.

Knowledge and the Ability of Imparting That Knowledge. The possession of knowledge does not necessarily carry with it the ability to impart that knowledge to others. Knowledge of itself does not make a leader. But acknowledgement by others of superiority of education and knowledge of a pertinent task is an asset to a leader.


The preceding material is designed for the study of the individual who aspires to become a leader. This is only one approach. There are hundreds of approaches, but it is believed that a careful analysis and application of the foregoing will enable an individual to become a leader. In short, every individual possesses inherent qualities that may be molded into leadership. Some find it more difficult to attain than others, but all leaders have one characteristic in common; the unalterable desire to become a leader.

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